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  • Abundance by James Finn Garner

    My family never travelled when I was growing up. Well, sometimes, Dad would allow a trip from Detroit to Chicago at Thanksgiving to visit relatives. It wasn’t until years later we realized it was because the NFL game was blacked out in Detroit. But as far as the wonders of the great wide world, his opinion was, you could have ‘em.

    I eventually learned that I love travel. Unfortunately, this knowledge didn’t come until I was the one who had to pay for it. When I was a sophomore in college, my brother was accepted into grad school for theater at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas Texas. Wow, I thought to myself, how exotic. A whole school full of Methodists? What would they look like? In Texas, what would they sound like?

    He needed a travel partner to make sure he didn’t go halfway, change his mind, and turn back so in August of that year, my brother and I packed up the champagne gray Ford Maverick with three on the tree and an AM radio, left Detroit, and headed south.

    The first stop was our ancestral homeland, Chicago. When I was very young, Chicago was a mystical place. They had different TV shows for kids. They drank something called 50/50 soda, which seemed like bad odds for a soft drink. They had exotic street names -- and there were so many, they eventually gave up and started using numbers. And the Christmas catalog delivered from Marshall Field’s every year was about this thick with childhood wonder and holiday magic and greed greed greed.

    We attended ChicagoFest when it was out on old, unrenovated Navy Pier. An industrial concrete trench of sweat and grease and mullets and Old Style and blues music and “Disco sucks” t-shirts. It seemed that while Detroiters drank more, Chicagoans were prepared to do it better and longer, and show up for work the next day. Here, the downtown was bigger, the buildings, the waterfront. On our way out of town, flying down the ramps of the Tri-State Tollway. a gigantic prairie thunderstorm hit us and flashed a Cinerama of lightning across the sky. Even the storms were bigger than they were in Detroit.

    Next stop: Memphis. We visited Elvis’ grave on what turned out to be the third anniversary of his death. A crowd of thousands lined up to file past the remembrance garden. Everybody was in tears, broken, bereft, except for us. The mansion wasn’t open to the public then, and we didn’t even get to go in and see the Jungle Room. I bought an ashtray with a photo of the King’s face taped underneath.

    We drove through hilly, two-lane country highways into Arkansas. At one point, the road spread to a 10 lane super highway, Little Rock passed by in a blink, literally two exits, then the two-lane road began again. Their state motto is “Land of Opportunity”, but that is way open to interpretation.

    Dallas wasn’t impressive when we got there. Well, first you had to drive through literally 75 miles of suburbs. Baked trees and blowing yellow dust, numbingly flat landscape but ample parking day or night. Those legends about courtly Southern manners may have been true after all, because there were places called gentlemen’s clubs on almost every corner. Southern Methodist University, when we got there, was neat and preppy and insufferably smug. I’d been in funeral homes that were less sterile. My brother’s initial hesitations were well founded. He grew to hate the place. The school and the city, anyway, though not his classmates in theater studies. They all took special glee in teaching stage combat to prissy southern co-eds who showed up for class in skirts, sweaters and pearls.

    My brother was very unsure about his new circumstances, and carried a look of fear in his eyes. He’s a hero of mine, so seeing this was disconcerting. He is also a rival, the golden boy of the family, so seeing him dangling on the hook of a possibly big mistake was not entirely unpleasant. The only advice I could give him was “Buck up.” That seemed like what one did in Texas. Boarding my Greyhound headed west, I was grateful to be there and excited to be moving on. It was refreshing to switch roles and see someone else sad that I was the person leaving a place.

    New Mexico and Arizona were dusty and sometimes colorful, but there was so much of them, I thought it was overkill. Evening was a relief when it came.

    On the bus I was reading something corny and collegiate like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I yearned for personal epiphanies and revelations -- Wasn’t that what you got when you travelled? -- and I wanted them chop-chop. At a rest stop outside Las Vegas where the bus stopped for breakfast, I watched an angry old woman feeding quarters into a slot machine like it was a fat robot baby. The Truckers Breakfast Platter, on the other hand, was magnifique.

    Eventually I made it to Lake Tahoe. My roommate had dropped out of college after fights with his father about his major, and ended up out there that summer, painting ski lifts. A bizarre place, Lake Tahoe. Vertical with the mountains and jack pines, yet horizontal around that clear, azure lake. Once my traveling stopped, my mind started racing. Who settled here to start with, in the mountains? Who stayed, who left, who died here? Who puts a lake this far above sea level?

    And how Chicago talked about Mayor Daley, and Memphis talked about Elvis, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, they talked about the Donner Party. Local heroes, I guess. It came up as often as talk about the weather. Every time I’ve gone to California, in fact, someone will invariably make a reference to America’s most famous cannibals. It’s disturbing, frankly, though maybe instructive in Los Angeles. “Donner, Party of six. Oops, party of five….”

    At the time, my ex-roommate was already the most eccentric person I knew, inclined to brewing pots of psilocybin paté on weeknights and hanging out with people who claimed to be able to control the weather. Now he was getting weird. For the second time in my life, I hitchhiked with him, out of the mountains, toward San Francisco. We were picked up by a rusted VW bug, so full of junk I had to lay across the back seat like a garment bag. The mountains were foggy and rainy. Also, they were mountains, and you could fall right off them! Our bearded old driver was dipping tobacco. Between flicking chaw out the window and beating time on the wheel to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs bluegrass music, I don’t think he ever really drove the car. He just sort of slapped it into a vague direction, westward ho! If we were going to die in the mountains, at least it would be with style, though it wouldn’t be evident at our funerals.

    In San Francisco, that cantilevered city by the bay, we stayed in the apartment of a friend of a friend of someone we didn’t know. We walked the streets that smelled of salt and bus fumes, up slopes in Haight-Ashbury and Nob Hill, ate Chinese food in a real Chinatown with real Chinese people who treated us like dirt on their shoe. Back in the apartment, my friend and his new friend shared a bedroom, while I slept on the couch. My friend had come out while we had been in the dorm, six months earlier. He had turned it into a big dramatic confessional, like it was news to anybody, but it was the least of the things he and I had needed to work out. Whatever those issues might have been, they all but disappeared out there, on the dangling edge of the continent.

    His new life out here was only one of the things bouncing through my mind. I had a whole new world to digest on my own, full of deserts and oceans, mountains and storms, cannibals and gentleman’s clubs and robot babies, vast distances and sad closeness.

    In the morning, the sun flooded brightly through the apartment windows. To this day, I’m fascinated to look out of windows when I’m in San Francisco. They always seem angled to find a view. In the sun-lit shower, I steamed my body to life and pumped shampoo out of a huge bottle. It might have been a quart. Maybe it was a half-gallon, I don’t know, but it was more shampoo than I had ever seen in one bathroom! To this day, a huge pump bottle of shampoo is a symbol of that trip. A symbol of possibilities, new beginnings, shocks to the system, but most of all, a two-gallon bottle of shampoo is the perfect symbol to me of abundance. What I’d witnessed that month. The world’s joyous, slapdash, unending abundance. How I feel sorry for my dad.

    The first stop was our ancestral homeland, Chicago. When I was very young, Chicago was a mystical place. They had different TV shows for kids. They drank something called 50/50 soda, which seemed like bad odds for a soft drink. They had exotic street names -- and there were so many, they eventually gave up and started using numbers. And the Christmas catalog delivered from Marshall Field’s every year was about this thick with childhood wonder and holiday magic and greed greed greed.

    We attended ChicagoFest when it was out on old, unrenovated Navy Pier. An industrial concrete trench of sweat and grease and mullets and Old Style and blues music and “Disco sucks” t-shirts. It seemed that while Detroiters drank more, Chicagoans were prepared to do it better and longer, and show up for work the next day. Here, the downtown was bigger, the buildings, the waterfront. On our way out of town, flying down the ramps of the Tri-State Tollway. a gigantic prairie thunderstorm hit us and flashed a Cinerama of lightning across the sky. Even the storms were bigger than they were in Detroit.

    Next stop: Memphis. We visited Elvis’ grave on what turned out to be the third anniversary of his death. A crowd of thousands lined up to file past the remembrance garden. Everybody was in tears, broken, bereft, except for us. The mansion wasn’t open to the public then, and we didn’t even get to go in and see the Jungle Room. I bought an ashtray with a photo of the King’s face taped underneath.

    We drove through hilly, two-lane country highways into Arkansas. At one point, the road spread to a 10 lane super highway, Little Rock passed by in a blink, literally two exits, then the two-lane road began again. Their state motto is “Land of Opportunity”, but that is way open to interpretation.

    Dallas wasn’t impressive when we got there. Well, first you had to drive through literally 75 miles of suburbs. Baked trees and blowing yellow dust, numbingly flat landscape but ample parking day or night. Those legends about courtly Southern manners may have been true after all, because there were places called gentlemen’s clubs on almost every corner. Southern Methodist University, when we got there, was neat and preppy and insufferably smug. I’d been in funeral homes that were less sterile. My brother’s initial hesitations were well founded. He grew to hate the place. The school and the city, anyway, though not his classmates in theater studies. They all took special glee in teaching stage combat to prissy southern co-eds who showed up for class in skirts, sweaters and pearls.

    My brother was very unsure about his new circumstances, and carried a look of fear in his eyes. He’s a hero of mine, so seeing this was disconcerting. He is also a rival, the golden boy of the family, so seeing him dangling on the hook of a possibly big mistake was not entirely unpleasant. The only advice I could give him was “Buck up.” That seemed like what one did in Texas. Boarding my Greyhound headed west, I was grateful to be there and excited to be moving on. It was refreshing to switch roles and see someone else sad that I was the person leaving a place.

    New Mexico and Arizona were dusty and sometimes colorful, but there was so much of them, I thought it was overkill. Evening was a relief when it came.

    On the bus I was reading something corny and collegiate like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I yearned for personal epiphanies and revelations -- Wasn’t that what you got when you travelled? -- and I wanted them chop-chop. At a rest stop outside Las Vegas where the bus stopped for breakfast, I watched an angry old woman feeding quarters into a slot machine like it was a fat robot baby. The Truckers Breakfast Platter, on the other hand, was magnifique.

    Eventually I made it to Lake Tahoe. My roommate had dropped out of college after fights with his father about his major, and ended up out there that summer, painting ski lifts. A bizarre place, Lake Tahoe. Vertical with the mountains and jack pines, yet horizontal around that clear, azure lake. Once my traveling stopped, my mind started racing. Who settled here to start with, in the mountains? Who stayed, who left, who died here? Who puts a lake this far above sea level?

    And how Chicago talked about Mayor Daley, and Memphis talked about Elvis, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, they talked about the Donner Party. Local heroes, I guess. It came up as often as talk about the weather. Every time I’ve gone to California, in fact, someone will invariably make a reference to America’s most famous cannibals. It’s disturbing, frankly, though maybe instructive in Los Angeles. “Donner, Party of six. Oops, party of five….”

    At the time, my ex-roommate was already the most eccentric person I knew, inclined to brewing pots of psilocybin paté on weeknights and hanging out with people who claimed to be able to control the weather. Now he was getting weird. For the second time in my life, I hitchhiked with him, out of the mountains, toward San Francisco. We were picked up by a rusted VW bug, so full of junk I had to lay across the back seat like a garment bag. The mountains were foggy and rainy. Also, they were mountains, and you could fall right off them! Our bearded old driver was dipping tobacco. Between flicking chaw out the window and beating time on the wheel to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs bluegrass music, I don’t think he ever really drove the car. He just sort of slapped it into a vague direction, westward ho! If we were going to die in the mountains, at least it would be with style, though it wouldn’t be evident at our funerals.

    In San Francisco, that cantilevered city by the bay, we stayed in the apartment of a friend of a friend of someone we didn’t know. We walked the streets that smelled of salt and bus fumes, up slopes in Haight-Ashbury and Nob Hill, ate Chinese food in a real Chinatown with real Chinese people who treated us like dirt on their shoe. Back in the apartment, my friend and his new friend shared a bedroom, while I slept on the couch. My friend had come out while we had been in the dorm, six months earlier. He had turned it into a big dramatic confessional, like it was news to anybody, but it was the least of the things he and I had needed to work out. Whatever those issues might have been, they all but disappeared out there, on the dangling edge of the continent.

    His new life out here was only one of the things bouncing through my mind. I had a whole new world to digest on my own, full of deserts and oceans, mountains and storms, cannibals and gentleman’s clubs and robot babies, vast distances and sad closeness.

    In the morning, the sun flooded brightly through the apartment windows. To this day, I’m fascinated to look out of windows when I’m in San Francisco. They always seem angled to find a view. In the sun-lit shower, I steamed my body to life and pumped shampoo out of a huge bottle. It might have been a quart. Maybe it was a half-gallon, I don’t know, but it was more shampoo than I had ever seen in one bathroom! To this day, a huge pump bottle of shampoo is a symbol of that trip. A symbol of possibilities, new beginnings, shocks to the system, but most of all, a two-gallon bottle of shampoo is the perfect symbol to me of abundance. What I’d witnessed that month. The world’s joyous, slapdash, unending abundance. How I feel sorry for my dad.