17. 238,900 Miles from Home, Part II

Published on 24 October 2022 at 13:48

© 2022 Robert Sickles

Recap of Part I: In 1969, we were on this bizarre weeks-long transcontinental expedition to rescue poor Lori—to gather her up from Boston and repair her broken spirit. After all, even though I didn’t know her, and even if it was beyond our means to drive to New England, Lori was Michaela’s soul-sister, and that made helping her my quest as well. In those times, we were all about extending loving kindness, going with the flow of serendipity, and living on a shoestring.

Road-weary and running on fumes, we finally drove into Boston.

BUT, where was that darned Lori?  At her last address, it seemed Lori hung around some very loose and transient space-outs, most of whom couldn’t remember what they just said much less who and where Lori was. We followed a few dead-end leads but Lori was nowhere to be found. Somehow, we learned that the she had joined up with a bunch who were going to start a commune in Alaska. It seemed she had given up on us while we took so long to reach Boston, or, I gathered, forgotten that we were even on the way.  

Michaela slipped into panicked desperation mode, a horrible thing I hadn’t yet seen in her. Blubbering and rocking herself, “Now we’re stuck in Boston with no place to stay, and hardly any money!” 

I was upset too, but the situation required me to step quickly into nurturing mode. I tried to offer comfort and optimism. “Look,” I said as I uncoiled Michaela from her fetal position, “Lori is happy in Alaska. Now we don’t have to worry about her. Things are going to work out here for us. I will panhandle or busk on the street if I have to.” That softened Michaela.  She decided she was upset mainly because Lori didn’t really need us to come save her, and now we’ve come all this way for nothing. That part I could agree with, but chose not to comment.

We went about making up the bed for the night, assuming we’d be parked on the city street. I was just thinking that a little help from somewhere would be appreciated, when a smiling fellow approached and asked if we could use a place to stay. At that time, you could flat-out trust someone who felt and looked cool—that is, the right hair, clothes, lingo, aura, car, etc. His apartment would be vacant for several weeks and we could use it for free if we’d promise to take care of his plants and pick up his mail. Naturally, we agreed to do it.

He explained that he was leaving that very night to visit family, then making his way to this little town in New York where a new kind of event called a “peace-love music festival” was going to happen later that month. “You haven’t heard about it? They call it Woodstock, man, it’s gonna be huge, some top rock and folk groups are going to be there. A million people will be camping on this guy’s farm. It’s all about peaceful people and loving vibes. I think it’s all sold out, too bad you didn’t hear about it sooner. After that, I’ll travel a while, and be back around mid-September.” That music festival sounded intense and a little scary to me, I was glad we were too late and too broke to get tickets.

The way we encountered him, right on the sidewalk at such a critical time was truly amazing, a godsend! “Maybe not a coincidence,” I thought. That was the first time I considered the possibility that some power or connection exists that draws helpful people to needful people. We were depending on each other, like partners on a see-saw. Settled in, oriented in the city, Michaela 180’ed her mood.

(By the way, our Woodstock friend had distinctively crazy hair held by an odd-looking headband. Months later, I thought I recognized him in a Life magazine photo of people sloshing in mud at the festival. Well, I was that close to being a part of history!)

Michaela found an usherette job in a downtown movie theater that played Midnight Cowboy two or three times a day. Months later she would still weep whenever she heard Everybody’s Talkin’.  

I hired on for renovation work at the Parker House Hotel (yes, the dinner rolls place.) Under new ownership, it was being remodeled floor by floor. I moved lots and lots of furniture and fixtures, up and down the service elevator!  My friendly boss was from corporate HQ, sent to manage the transition. My office was down in housekeeping, and the staff there were like family. I was struggling with the heavy work and looming deadlines, so they hired me an assistant. I'll call him Ray.

Ray was a tough kid, a high schooler who seemed awfully annoyed most of the time, and who made it clear he didn’t like me or anyone this side of town. He cussed at me when I asked for his help, and mocked my words when he overheard me chatting with the head of housekeeping. He thought anyone who had a pleasant manner and spoke well was a "fuckin’ queer." He hated hippies, college types, homos, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Blacks and the New York Yankees, to name a few.

One day, Ray finally let me have it. In his emphatic Southie dialect: “You get to waltz in here on your summer break, smile around the place like everyone loves you. You’ll get your hands dirty and blistered for a few weeks, then you’ll pack up and leave when you’re ready, go anywhere in the world you want. You know, if I finish high school, I’ll be the first ever in my family. If I get away from this town, it’ll either be on a plane to ‘Nam or a bus to prison. You know, I actually hope this company hires me for good someday—after this hotel is all fixed up, they can move me on to the next one. This may be my life’s work, moving mattresses and lamps... and if it’s a steady job, I’ll fuckin' take it.” 

His remarks stung; he told it like it was for me. I was free as a bird, even with an uncertain future. I was dabbling in voluntary poverty. Ray's prospects may have looked grim to me, especially with that big chip on his shoulder, but he did have a sense of where he was heading—and he was more or less resigned to it. He and I had no choice but to work together, and it was up to me to build a bridge.

This young man was sorely lacking a lot of things, self-respect being first on the list. From then on, I gave him a little extra attention, sitting near him on lunch breaks on the loading dock, offering him a stick of gum, pointing out the pretty girls I could spot from the hotel windows, learning who his favorite athletes were, what kind of car he wanted to drive, and so forth. We got along a lot better. He told gross jokes and made fun of the front desk clerk’s roadkill hairpiece. I told him about my time hopping a freight train and getting chased by railway cops, and my girlfriend who drove with me all across the country to help a friend.  

One day, we completed work on a deluxe suite with nice furniture and everything. I noticed Ray gesturing “all finished” by dusting his hands, and smiling with satisfaction for a job well done. I caught myself feeling sorry for him, imagining it was the first time he’d ever smiled about something he did well. But no, it was time to drop my judgements, to simply join in with his happiness.

When our stints came to an end later in the Summer, I handed Ray a cartoon I made of that deluxe room, with him sitting in a big wingback chair. “Look at that,” he said, “it’s like I belong there in that throne, right?” At the least, I was able show him that being artistic, educated, socially mobile and so on didn’t make me like an intolerable outer space alien or something.  I could hope, too, that he chose a contented life for himself.

Weeks passed, Michaela and I were quarreling a lot again. Mainly we were not accustomed to such a confusing, humid and crowded city. Parking was  crazy, our van got towed. People there were aloof, it wasn’t like the West Coast where it was easy to make friends. I guess hippies hadn’t become commonplace on the streets of Boston—we got our fair share of dirty looks and comments from shopkeepers, neighbors, cops and doormen. We were stuck there until we saved enough money to leave, and it was also two months to go before our house-sitting was over.

One July evening, while Michaela was working a late shift, I was alone in that little apartment, feeling sorry for myself. I could barely see what was happening on a tiny black & white rabbit-ears TV, but I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. He had flown there 238,900 miles in his little tin-toy spaceship. I sighed with a wave of emotion washing over me, sniffed and wiped a tear. Despite all the exuberant reporting and famous quotes about that historic moment, I believed I knew what the astronaut was really feeling. “Vulnerable, scared and homesick, aren’t you, spaceman?” I whispered to Neil, “Same here, brother.”

Through a mutual friend, Michaela learned that Lori left Alaska and was in Seattle, desperately looking for us. “Oh, yay,” I sighed, resigning myself to another drive across the country for Lori’s sake. But I slapped myself and turned into “Happy Me”… it was finally time to go! Now September, we had enough cash for the trip, and our Woodstock friend was on his way home.

After languishing for weeks on Boston’s brick streets, Beluga was prepared for launch with a full tank of gas and a clean windshield. We achieved liftoff at 0800, roared to the open road, and rocketed through the cosmic dust and solar flares of America’s deserts and high planes. Days later, in sight of the Cascades’ snowcaps, I lifted my hand as though holding a microphone to my mouth, announcing to mission control: [mouth sounds: click, static-crackle] “Houston, all systems go for reentry!” Back in our cool, clear Evergreen State... oh my, was it possible to be home for good this time?

And as for Lori in Seattle? I never actually met the woman. No surprise… she was travelling with a rock band and practicing up to perform with them, sort of a pretty face tambourinist.

Michaela said she’d love to go meet up with Lori and the band in Colorado. “Lori said they’re so great, maybe we could get into their sound. You know, grab an instrument and play along—be part of the group?” We argued and I used words like “chasing rainbows” and “a wild goose chase.” I had no interest in playing rock music, so I didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought we were enjoying making a home, starting a garden, adopting a cat and all. I’d started a cool job. A dark cloud moved over us. I knew a breakup was coming.

I will always credit Michaela for the memorable experiences. I would have a lot less to write about now without her. But her life was a maelstrom of mood swings and erratic ideas, increasingly grandiose and frenetic… so hard for me to keep up with.  She was invited to attend a Buddhist community's meeting for interested newcomers. Suddenly, she decided to go live with them because they were so happy.

Honestly, I was both grieved and relieved when Michaela packed a duffle bag, grabbed her hat and coat, and walked away from my life.


Guess who. Guess where.

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2 years ago

Robert, I always enjoyed halving lunch with you. I suspected you had an interesting life that I knew very little about. Thanks for finally coming clean with me.

Kathy M
2 years ago

I loved both stories Robert! It just shows how adventurous, willing to adapt and good natured you are...and maybe just a little CRAZY through my very conservative eyes! Ah Youth!!

2 years ago

Too bad you didn’t meet up with Rick When you were in Boston. He was at BU, and I seem to recall he stayed up there all summer. Thanks for another great story!