Wednesday 19 June 2013

On the road all right

A friend from high school once said to me that I've led an interesting life, which I guess is true though it
always invoked feelings of the famous chinese curse "may you live in interesting times".
I'm happy with an interesting life, less so than being broke at the age of 48.
Another friend I knew in Sydney worked for one of the big four banks and he told me he set the worst example for a bank employee as he "had no savings, but plenty of stories".
So to combine the paragraphs so far, one day I may be able to make some money from all these stories.
Having said that, I am further reminded of the band Blue King Brown, a Byron outfit, who began busking on the stony surface of Jonson st.
Natalie from BKB, when asked on Spicks and Specks, pointed out that the first task was to get people to stop and listen, that was hard enough, but then getting them to pay for it, was harder again.
Anyway, the picture (above) shows me hitching outside Bangalow.
My car needed some more repairs and my trusted mechanic is at Clunes, 30 k or in the hinterland, so when the car was ready I had to hitch up there.
As I stood there arms outstretched I was thinking "why am I still hitch hiking?
I am graduate of Sydney Uni science and I thought by this stage in my life I would own a $40,000 motor vehicle and be able to afford limo service to go pick up my car".
It reminds me that when I first set out to be a writer that I quickly realised that to be a good, or at least interesting writer you first have to have a lot of bad experiences.
No one for instance wants to read about a travel journalist who goes to India, catches buses that are always on time with plenty of comfy seats, never catches Delhi Belly, and doesn't spend most of the holiday crouched over a hole in the ground begging for death.
Never happen, you wouldn't read it.
So I gave up the Trying To Be A Writer idea as I didn't particularly want to spend my life having bad experiences for the edification of others.
All of which is of course voluptuously ironic as life then proceeded to load bad experiences on top of me one after the other.
Elsewhere I have mentioned that I have been to rehab for booze and drugs so I thought in this post I would relate some of the antics that saw me ultimately enter the doors of Marumali rehab centre at Wyong hospital on the central coast.
It all started with a broken heart.
I fell in love with an American woman, who then dumped me for another man.
This was a doubly unique experience for me, I'd been dumped before, hasn't everyone?, but this was the first time it was announced clearly to me that another man was better than I was.
Plus, I'd never been in love before.
This was the real deal, unable to eat, unable to sleep, my regard for this woman made Gatsby's for Daisy seem like a casual, take-her-or-leave-her kind of thing.
So to say I was devastated by this dumping was a staggeringly underwhelming word to use.
Perhaps best put by saying that in comparison the residents of Pompeii were mildly annoyed by the explosion of Mt Versuvius.
At the time I was working for an American software company, the head office of which was in Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, based around the town of San Jose.
I was over there to attend a two week training course on some new gear we were rolling out and she told me it was over on the weekend in the middle of this fortnight.
I got though the remaining week of training, and in truth, the course was a bit of a godsend as it was complex programming that absorbed my mind and allowed me to shy away from any thoughts of the raging chasm of pain that was now buried deep within.


My flight back to Sydney was 5pm Saturday, but this was Friday and with the course over I drove down up to central San Fran with two friends I'd made on the course, Stewart from Edinburgh and Mike from Dublin.
I dropped off the car I'd hired and then checked into a backpackers nearby.
Then we were free.
It rather sounds like the beginning of a joke, "There was a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Australian loose in San Fran on a Friday night".
All three of these races are, how can I put it?, known for liking the odd beer?
Man, did we get slaughtered.
The end of the course, the weekend in prospect, the relief of getting out of the sterile building we'd inhabited for the past 14 days, plus, for me, the desire to forget about the dumping.
It all combined and it seemed we were on a mission to denude the entire Bay area of beer.
I can't recall how many different bars we attended that night, in fact, I can shorten that sentence to three words, "I can't recall".
Eventually we had to call it a night due to fatigue, Mike and Stewart peeled off to their accommodation and I wended my way home to bed.


When I awoke the next morning I knew I was in trouble.
For the first time since the dumping, I was alone with my thoughts.
I checked out of the backpackers at 11 and mentioned to the young man behind the desk that my flight wasn't till five and could he recommend something for me to do till then?
He then said those fateful words, "well, there's a great pub just down the block, which has good food and so maybe lunch there?"
I was out the door before he had dropped my key into its slot.
As a Simpson's toast famously put it: "To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems".
I would drink steadily till three, catch my bus to the airport and then fly home.
The pub (pictured) was great and additionally once inside, and as I'm about to relate, was the first and only time in my life that I believed in ghosts.
I ordered a beer and then noticed a display on the wall, it was a tribute to Jack Kerouac, who, it was said, wrote On the Road there.
Apparently once he'd arrived in California he sat in that bar and wrote the seminal road book whilst, presumably, imbibing vast quantities of booze.
I was strangely comforted by the display and felt this was the place for me that day.
I returned to the bar and ordered another beer.
An american guy about my own age came in and sat next to me.
We struck up a conversation.
His name was Jim and he worked for a book publishing firm back east and had been in town seeing clients and now was, like me, having the day off.
He was actually in the pub because of the Jack Kerouac legend and we fell to talking about books, work, the West Coast and the like.
Just what I wanted.
The hours slipped by on a tide of Budweiser, lunch of chili fries came and went, then I noticed with horror that it was 2.30.
Horror, because I was having such a good time, Jim was great company, the bar was cosy and redolent with the aura of Jack the great writer.
The idea of leaving this cosy cocoon and returning to the real world was repellent, and at that moment I believe the spirit of Jack Kerouac awoke and entered me.
I said to Jim "Do you want to go out and see a few bars this evening?"
He replied, "Hell yeah! But I thought you were flying out?"
"Soon fix that", I said.
I rang the airline, "may I change my flight to Sunday?"
"No problem Mr Barker, there  will be a US$50 fee, is that Ok?"
If she had said $1,000, I would have said Ok.
I left Jim and returned to the backpackers, "Ok to stay another night? I'm now flying Sunday."
"No problem", said the young man.
I took my key, dropped my bag back on the bunk from last night and returned to my alcoholic womb and off we went again.
Some more hours in the Kerouac pub, then we found somewhere to have dinner and the night took on the whirlpool effect of Friday.
I said to Jim "Do you know where we can get some pot?", he did and the next thing I recall we were in a terrace house in south San Fran, inhabited by some frankly evil looking people.
We decided not to buy any pot, as we didn't want to carry it round in public, so paid $10 each and smoked up a couple of joints while we were there.
Just what we needed really.
Already bombed from afternoon drinking we were now stoned, on West Coast pot, famously strong and often spliced with other drugs, to boot.
The night then to on the classic kaleidoscopic texture and with the cocktail of pharmas in my blood, I became convinced that Jack Kerouac was walking with us.
I began to look over my shoulder to see if I could glimpse him.
Faces of men in bars merged Jack's photo on the wall of his pub that I had looked at that afternoon and whilst we weren't 'On the Road' in the classic sense, we certainly stumbled up plenty.
I recall attending a strip bar in the Damon Runyon hours and then nothing.


If you think things had been wild, that's correct, but they were about to get wilder still, and it all stemmed from me showing a little self-control for the first time in three days.
A lesson there along the "life is what happens when you're making plans" school of philosophy.
At 11 I checked out of the backpackers (again) and to say the pull of Jack's pub to have a few beers to take the edge off my hangover and emotional pain was magnetic would be to completely understate it.
No earthly magnet could match it.
The pull Jupiter exerts on the asteroid belt was closer to the truth.
However, I knew, hungover, emotionally-destroyed me, just knew that I had to get on that aircraft this night.
The helpful young man at the backpackers told me that the airport shuttle came to the backpackers each day at 11 specifically for those checking out.
I grabbed my bag and waited in tense fashion on the footpath outside, the shuttle duly arrived and I got on board with a sigh of relief.
I was still tense on the ride out to SFO, worrying that I may break at any moment, yell "stop the bus" and jump off and into the nearest bar.
I could be still there today, begging on the streets, but I held on and was delivered safely to the airport.
It was now noon, with three hours to check in, and five till the flight, but that was my plan, just hang at the airport till time.
However, having got myself there, I then rewarded myself, how else?, by attending the first bar I could find and began drinking.
As I was ordering my third beer and the world around me began to swim into focus like the sand at the bottom of a mouldy fish tank, I noticed that next to me at the bar was an attractive, red-haired woman of youngish middle age.
As I went to order, she did at the same time, so I said, "Can I buy you a drink?"
She said "Thank you" and ordered a martini, and like Jim the day before, we struck up a conversation.
I should point out here that I have always liked North Americans, one of my best friends was Sean from Toronto, my ex-wife was Canadian, the woman who had so recently dumped me, Californian, and this red-head was from Colorado.
I think it is their always upbeat attitude and seductive accent, a north American is always likely, as had Jim the day before, to say "Man, you're Australian, it's great to meet you and just hear your accent".
My red-headed friend's name was Colleen, I asked her what she was doing here and in her reply was the first of the coincidences that occurred that Sunday.
"I'm an art buyer, I'm flying to Sydney this evening to buy some works for our gallery in Vail."
"Oh, really", I said, "Are you on the five p.m. flight?"
"Yes", she replied.
"I am too", I said and then we were well away.
I told her about my work, software, silicon valley and the like and we conversed (and drank) happily for the next three hours.
Then it was time to check in, we attended the desk and received our seat designations.
Then, what else?, we returned to the bar and had a few for the sky, and waited for our flight to be called.
Eventually we boarded.
The cattle class of aircraft has ten seats in a row, three near the window, four in the centre and three against the window on the other side.
To this day I don't know if it it was the ghost of Jack prodding the arm of the check-in clerk, or simply that we were standing together in the line, but when we took our seats, I had the window seat of row 34 with no one next to me, whilst Colleen had the aisle seat in the middle four seats of row 34 with no one next to her.
So she came over and joined me and as soon as airborne we began drinking from the flight attendant's trolley.
Vodka for her, more Budweiser for me.
Then somewhere between the coast of California and the trade-wind caressed shores of Hawaii, we consumated our love against the window of row 34.
I would advise anyone planning this irregular airborne activity to ask the flight attendant for an extra blanket (each), a tarpaulin if possible.
My salient recollection was trying to cover our carryings-on with a woefully inadequate single blanket.
I don't know why I bothered really, we were so drunk that the noise was a far bigger giveaway than a visual sighting in the darkened aircraft.
If the co-pilot had appeared next to me and said "could you keep it down please, we can't concentrate in the cockpit", it wouldn't have surprised me.
Then we fell into a blissful sleep.
Blissful, that is, for the other passengers, who were then in their turn able to get some shut eye.
We eventually turfed up in Sydney Tuesday morning, I showed up to work and had my arse royally, I mean ROYALLY chewed for a) being a day late b) still in the clothes I wore on the plane, c) still drunk, but MOSTLY for funding my three days of Kerouac with a company credit card.

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