Peter Case

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Trip to Lightnin’, 1971

The latest lineup of Pig Nation moved into an old house out by Lake Erie, with six bedrooms, a fireplace, a porch, and a main room big enough to play ball in. It was situated in a remote and seedy wooded compound called Idlewood, and from the bluffs overlooking the lake we could see the steel mills of Lackawanna  blowing sulfurous smoke into the cinereal gray sky, merely a few miles of polluted shoreline away to the North. The leader of an infamous motorcycle gang and his old lady lived across the street from us, and often threw gargantuan outlaw parties on the island below, which we could hear on the breeze late at night, but outside of that the neighborhood was quiet.

In our house there were six guys, splitting two hundred dollars a month, and we could never make the rent. Then the first big winter storm hit and the back-to- the-land people, who were living in sleeping bags around campfires in the woods outside of town, began arriving at our door, begging to come in out of the cold, and we said okay to sixteen of them, boys and girls, and now we had twenty-two people in a house made for six, twenty-three if you count the dude someone picked up hitch-hiking, and at this point we began to suffer from cabin fever in there, and with the Buffalo weather and the distance from town, what had been a workable and even idyllic situation for all was starting to get strained. Twenty three divided by six bedrooms, that’s approximately three point eight-three hippies a room, and we still couldn’t make the rent.

At first I’d been thriving, beating for hours on the old piano in the main room, teaching myself to play boogie-woogie, blues and honky tonk,  and my girlfriend from down in town, Julie, who I was nearly crazy about, would come out and stay sometimes, when her Dad was gone all week driving semi-trucks, but all my roommates started calling her “the Painted Woman,” and anyways, she never spoke, I’m not sure why. I’d ask “what can I do?” and she’d just look at me. I was hopelessly bad at sex and romance, and we weren’t really getting anywhere. The ping pong table in the middle of the house was going constantly with people working on their game, and everyone was stoned. Dinner every night was rice and beans. Being the youngest in the house, I was usually pressed into KP duty, and I began having to do the laundry too, over at the bikers place. But one day the oldest guy began thinking he was a religious leader, and became obsessed with converting the rest of us to his vision. He started going naked and calling everyone en masse up to his quarters to see God…

And I thought “man, I gotta get the fuck out of here!”

There’d been a storm in the night.

It was early in the morning and I’d decided to leave. No one else was awake yet. Stepping lightly through the house, I didn’t want to rouse the sleepers and have to face their questions. I wanted to get as far away from this place as I could, right away, blizzard or not. Out the door onto the gravel and ice, the cold air bit my nose, the wind punched my lungs, and the world was muted, still  in darkness.

The  pines were covered with snow, the bridge was buried, even the tiny sparrows flittering in the trees had little piles of snow on their heads. When I reached the highway,  I waited, watched and shivered, then stuck out my thumb as the first set of headlights approached through the wind and cold, wet snow. I ran to the car and jumped in, out of breath, took off my gloves, and held my hands to the dashboard heater. The radio was playing rock and roll, it was like arriving late to a party. The driver was a guy in his 30’s, mustache, short hair, nervous, probably doin’ a sales route.

“Goin’ to Syracuse,” he said as he pulled out into the flow.

“Me too!” I answered.

The country rolled by as we got on the New York Thruway, a road I’d travelled on a lot of times.  This was the first time I’d ever taken the road alone. While he fooled with the radio dial, I turned to the right and stared off through the window at the power lines and electrical towers that were marching in our direction like an invasion of giant robots, back across the grey frozen landscape to the horizon.

I got dropped off in Syracuse by the university, on the hippie-student strip.

I met two friendly and attractive young college girls, in a record shop and they invited me to their apartment near campus. Once there they brandished an item that I’d never seen before, and told me it was called a “bong.”

We fooled around with that for a while. To make sure this story doesn’t get too long, I’ll just say, I got out of the hospital a couple days later.

It was a weekday morning, the air outside was cold, but the storm had passed. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, the diamond ice on the ground glittered, and I thumbed a ride with a carload of kids that took me all the way to Albany.

The girl in the front passenger seat asked where I was going and I answered

“Boston.”

“Oh really? That’s a long ways. Do you have friends or family there?”

“Well, my grandfather was a train conductor out of Worcester, but he’s gone now. I’m just going to have a look.”

They dropped me off on the last Albany exit,  a major Thruway interchange with toll booths and lots of cars speeding both ways.

The weather was getting worse again. I immediately started trying to hitch a ride. Another traveler, a guy a few years older than me, was up ahead, workin’ the same flow of cars.  I wandered up and spoke with him. He was trying to get up near Boston as well. We talked for a while; he  said he was going home. We had a couple laughs about the weather, then split up again. Who wanted to pick up two riders?

Standing out there in the cold for an hour, I started getting a little nervous. A thousand cars must’ve gone by, and no one even looked. The flurries swirled and swarmed. I turned around and the sun was gone, it had just disappeared. The sky was getting dark, I could feel the temperature falling, as the snow began to squall. It was turning into a blizzard, and still no ride.

Headlights were halos in the wall of white; cars emerged from the ground-level clouds into the foreground, and zoomed past, my plight raising not even a quick look from the drivers.They kept whooshing by, hundreds of thousands of  ’em, the car-wheels spinning and kicking up slush. Spotlights at the blue thruway toll booths ahead revealed more traffic coming off the Thruway than going on, and the storm looked to be on top of us now.

The other hitch-hiker came over and said that after hanging here so long not getting a lift, he figured it might be time to surrender. I watched his back as he walked to the toll station, went into a phone booth, and dialed. Ten minutes later a checkered taxi pulled over and he ran for it.

“My parents sent me a plane ticket home,” he called. “Good luck!”

The cab pulled out on the Thruway interchange and disappeared, with him in back.I left my spot at the on-ramp and began to walk into Albany, hoping to find some shelter for the night. After a while a city bus came by and I flagged it down. There were no other passengers; I paid and sat down on one of the sideways benches, looking over the driver’s shoulders into the night as the bus lurched, roared and slammed its way up a hill.

No one else got on, and we rode all the way to the end of the route: State University at Albany. In a hollow voice the driver muttered, “this is it,” as the door swung open.  I stepped onto the street, and the bus lumbered away leaving me standing there, floating in a giant, haunted empty space, a dark plaza of vacant modern campus architecture.

Lit by flood lamps in the snow, the buildings looked like something dreamt up by Albert Speer for the Third Reich, and the university was a ghost ship; everyone was gone. It was the semester break.

But the snow kept coming, and I needed to move.

The next bus to town pulled into view and it was the last. Once again, I was the only passenger. I asked the driver, a middle-aged black man, who seemed ready for anything in his heavy parka and Russian-style hat with ear flaps, and he said there was a shelter downtown. He stopped a few blocks away and gave me directions.

I said thanks, stepped off and his bus roared away.

I was in downtown Albany, its streets lined with old brick buildings, and the snowplows hadn’t even come through yet. There was no one in sight. I walked and after a while I found it, a storefront next door to a church. The door was unlocked, and I entered. It was warm inside, where a lady and man were toiling about getting ready to leave. I’d just made it, they told me, come on in.

I looked at the posters on the walls. Apparently, the place did quadruple service as a shelter for transients, a suicide hotline, a community resources switchboard, and as the home for the Downtown Albany Free Medical Clinic. There were no other clients, or customers, victims, whatever the hell I was.

The rooms were furnished with junk chairs, an old low wooden table, and ancient asbestos floor tiles in faded primary colors. Piles of toys in the corner waited for the preschool that met there. On the wall hung a plaque with a serenity prayer on it, the same prayer I’d seen displayed at my Uncle Jim’s house.

The people were friendly and relaxed, but they asked a lot of questions, and I lied about everything including my name,“Davis Clifford,” my age “eighteen,”  my purpose for the trip,“visiting family in Boston,”  and they were perfectly satisfied with the answers I gave. I was shown into a room with a couple of cots, and I put my things down, lay back on a pillow, pulled the green blanket over, and crashed.I woke early the next morning ready to leave.

The people were talking excitedly about the big snowfall setting some kind of a record. The front window was so frosted I couldn’t really see, but from the way they shivered and shook and stomped the snow off their boots I got the idea.

I put on my coat and steeled myself for the freeze, said goodbye to the kind people of the Albany Downtown Switchboard and Shelter, and headed out through frosted doors into the morning. The sun was out and blinding, and the streets were filled with shining ice; the sky was clean blue, the storm had passed but everything was buried under great heaps of white.  Cars were skidding along the street; the little one-man snowplows were coming through, clearing the sidewalks. It had really been a big storm.

Following directions back to the highway, and walking slowly, slipping on the ice, the cold air burned my face,  and my toes already ached from the cold. When I passed a public library, an ancient brick building on a hillside lot set back from the street, I gave up; without thinking much, and went in.

There were only a couple of people there.

An old bird, probably retired, with bushy eyebrows, sitting at a table scowling at a copy of Popular Mechanics, and  a middle-aged lady librarian in a sweater and skirt; she wore glasses and her grey hair was pinned up in a bun on top of her head. She smiled at me as I passed her desk. I saw carved-on tables, a worn out floor; I could smell the old books, a dry musty odor, not unpleasant. The tables and chairs, the carpets and the floors, even the pictures on the wall were brownish and worn.

In the back room where the phonograph records were kept I saw a little music listening booth with glass windows, equipped with a turntable. Records were kept in a bin along the wall: I went down on my knees to read the lettering on the worn out album cover spines. Hidden in there amongst ratty copies of Victory At Sea, Sing Along With Mitch, and Sounds of the Brazilian Rain Forest, was one record that caught my eye and made my heart jump: a Skip James LP, in a blue sleeve with a photo on the front of a black man in a loud yellow shirt rockin’ on a blond Gibson guitar.

This was it.

I continued to flip through the records and pulled two others: The Cisco Special by folksinger Cisco Houston,  and  Ramblin’ Jack Elliot Sings the Songs Of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. I took the three albums in hand and stepped to the listening booth. Something about the situation I was in made me uniquely ready to listen. I dropped the needle onto the first tones of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”  The guitar was low, flat-toned and buzzing. The ghosting voice was high and almost disembodied, “If I could ever get up offa this killin’ floor…”  It was the sound of America, my home, as the foreign country I knew it to be. A soul was peeping out the window of eyes and seeing the strangeness of the world. I knew Skip James was a Mississippi born blues singer, but I knew absolutely nothing else about his life or his music; I’d never heard anyone speak about him or even mention his name before, but the sound of that record hit me hard and was so fresh, I was unprepared.  I got turned on, and burned like a tungsten bulb. I played that song over and over again.

Ramblin’ Jack and Cisco were a different story, wise guys of another stripe. “Dead Or Alive” by Ramblin’ Jack was an hilarious outlaw blues. “The sheriff wrote me a letter: ‘come down and see me, boy, dead or alive.’ Jack had a touching way of making the law sound foolish. He swallowed the words then spat’em out, and it cracked me up.

The first cut on the Cisco Houston LP was a rousing, old fashioned  boogie-woogie country tune about how “all I ever did was shoot a deputy down” and how, then, “I got ninety nine years on the hard rock pile.”  “This has sure been a lesson to me!”  is the last line, a ridiculous wrap up…a great record!

Mocking the trouble, their bad luck, the straight uptown world, all phoniness and hassles, right to its face, Cisco and Ramblin’ Jack were thumbing their noses at the law and living large and free in the face of insurmountable opposition. “It’s a hard road, dead or alive.” Nothing would ever get you down if you laughed at law and life and made it rock like Cisco Houston or Rambling’ Jack do on “The Badman Ballad” or “Dead or Alive.”

Or make a record as powerful and wailin’ as Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, with nothin’ but a guitar and your voice. I never got over it.  I was never the same after hearing Jack Eliott, Skip James, and Cisco Houston the day of the blizzard in the Albany Public Library.

Perfect snow on the Massachusetts turnpike, after-the-storm calmness. White dusted over white pines and stone ledges of the road, cut through shale stone hillsides. Got a ride in a Lincoln with an old man, in a black suit, frail, he might’ve been fifty years old, soft spoken, the car was quiet, no radio and going all the way.

“Where you going?”

“Boston”

“Me too!”

Through Stockbridge, past Worcester, watching the snow-covered countryside, the distant hills and mountains, towns wheeling by on each side of the road, I was breathing deep. In the aftermath of the storm, it felt like a Sunday. Time was bright and quiet for a while in that old man’s car, and everything was okay.

It was exciting to be going somewhere new, Boston, and when we got there the city burst all over me. On its teeming streets and miles of stone and wood, I was overwhelmed. The old man dropped me off in a place he called the Combat Zone, which was one-way in full tilt, sidewalks jammed with workers, men and women in long dark wool coats, steam rising from beneath the street, and car exhausts puffing from the cold blocked traffic.

Boston was cranking with the energy of a million edgy people. I ran down into the subway and found my way to Cambridge, coming up from the underground to wander the busy streets by Harvard University. The area surrounding the school was just as busy as downtown Boston, but vibrating at a different pitch, girls of approximately my age, and guys with long hair and sideburns, waving gloves of kid leather, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, wearing blue jeans, boots, colorful parkas and ponchos, fancy scarves, stylish black motorcycle jackets, wool hats with beanies, and steam rising in clouds from their chatter. Arm and arm they came, across Harvard Yard, bound together in youth and privilege, on their way to studies, bundled up and trundling past the most wasted street-people I’d ever seen.

Banks of snow lined the curbs and covered the sidewalks. It was mid-afternoon and, blizzard or not, the city of Cambridge was bustling. No one noticed me at all as I wandered up and down Massachusetts Avenue.

I needed a place to crash and the afternoon was getting on. One of the elders at the Pig Nation house had advised me, “If you ever need a place to crash, just find somebody with ‘the look’ in their eye and ask them. We’re a secret society.”  I spied about and spotted a strange looking man, with wild, black, mad scientist hair, red face, a beard, thick glasses, and a very mature demeanor.  He had “the look” I was sure. I asked him if he knew of place I could go, and he said “Cmon’, follow me,” and we went down a couple of side streets and up a garbage can alley, in the side door of a three story building, climbed a long flight of stairs and entered into a large open loft space, filled with newspaper and print shop paraphernalia.  He showed me to a cot in an alcove, surrounded by a desk and some bookshelves, then shrugged and told me to make myself comfortable. He said “ You can stay, but you’ll have to leave early.”

I asked how come.

He said “See that poster over there, with the picture of a ship on it?”

I turned and saw it, yeah.

“Tomorrow we’re going to levitate that ship around the world.”

He was in some new organization called Scientology. I’d never heard of it, but all of a sudden I remembered I had to do something out on the street.

“I’ll be right back.” I dashed out and continued wandering.

 

In the early evening I approached a theater with an open ticket booth and a few people entering. There was a sign out front:

“LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS

TONIGHT! IN PERSON

8PM  General Admission $2.50”

Oh my God! I felt a shock of excitement; I could hardly believe it. I started going through my pockets to see if I still had enough money to get in. I had exactly 3 dollars left, so I paid through the slot in the window to the box office guy, and got two quarters and a ticket pushed back at me. I nearly ran inside.

The theater was already dark and the show was beginning. There he was, sittin’up there in the big spotlight, rockin’ on a steel stringed guitar, Lightnin’ Hopkins playing the blues, Mount Rushmore with a pompadour and shades.

I floated up into the balcony, on a sea of darkness, while the freight train spotlight on the star, and the sound he made, had me instantly hypnotized. He was wearing a suit, the shades were shining, and his hair crested his skull like the prow of a ship. He sang “Mighty Crazy” and “Wonder Why.” Then he told a long story of Mister Charlie’s rolling mill burning down, and when I was lost, blown away, didn’t know what I was seeing, he sang “The Trouble Blues.” “

“Trouble trouble trouble is all in the world I see” and tho’ I’d heard a couple of his records before, and loved them, I never got it until I heard this.

“I ran away from home but no one tried to fetch me back/ that was a long old time ago/held all I owned in a paper sack/ a long cold time fo’ sho’.”

“Poverty knocked and left his card/ said call me when your daddy dies/The good times are way off now/ I  see ‘em everytime I close my eyes.”

I was hungry when I left the show. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, but walked straight down the street and into the Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria, where I got a tray, joined the line and helped myself to some chile con carne and hot rolls, and a for desert a slice of pie, then took a table in the corner and enjoyed it all at my leisure. About halfway through the pie, I remembered that I was broke. When I was done I stood up and ambled toward the front, saw the attendant catch a load of me, and as soon as I pushed through the door and made it to the sidewalk, I turned left and took off running with the guy chasing me right behind. I flew down the steps of the subway, jumped the turnstile, and was lucky to find the train just loading on the platform. I caught it as it was pulling out, and rode it all the way out to Logan Airport where I spent the night sleeping in the American Airlines travel lounge. I didn’t even notice the crowds or flight announcements, until I woke up in the middle of  everything the next morning and went back to town.

I decided to go home then. I got to the turnpike on-ramp and the first vehicle that stopped was a semi-truck sixteen wheeler. I raced up and climbed aboard, said “I’m going to Buffalo,” and the driver, a young Irish looking fellow, nodded, said “Get in I’m goin’ all the way,”  and after all that fooling around and chicanery to get to Boston, it was one clean ride back, eight hours with the sun out in a blue sky  shining into the cab, melting the snowy fields and icicles off the barn roofs, and me and the driver telling stories and having some laughs. I played him some blues on the guitar, and we  listened to country music on the radio as we barreled west, and then for a while I stayed lost and buried in my thoughts, he in his, and then, after many mesmerized hours we got back to Buffalo that night.

We weren’t too far out of town when he asked me “where in Buffalo you going?” and I said “on Route 5 out in Lakeview” and he said “I’m going right by there I’ll take you to your door,” and man, I felt like it was a true legendary return, with the truck pulling in to Idlewood and carrying me right up to our green house, and me jumping out onto the running board with my guitar and hopping down as the driver gave me two long deafening blasts from his horn that rang through the night,  thenyelling “Take it easy, man!” as he drove away.

So I went into the house expecting a hero’s welcome, there they all were, and no one had even noticed I’d been gone.

 

3 comments

  1. This is great stuff. Fills in the story. But here’s a whopping fat worm on a hook somewhere nearer the beginning: “To make sure this story doesn’t get too long, I’ll just say, I got out of the hospital a couple days later.” Alright, I’ll bite. Is that one written down yet? Sounds like a good one.

    1. Oh, yea, I get that. This story is perfect as it is. I just think whatever it is it has to be another story (or song etc)
      Btw, that image of the little birds with tufts of snow on their heads made me very happy today. Great visual!

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