His parents would’ve been happy to have heard anything from him, to let them know he was alive. And he had gone through so much, but Jack couldn’t write home about any of it. As if he thought about them was ever homesick or ever missed his hometown. Bless the alchemy that turned him into a complex human being.
He had traveled across the country, experienced the good and bad, but how much of it did he really see? America, would he ridicule her? Would he question who he was? Would he lose his perspective?
Jack chose to close the Crystal Palace and sat in the furthest corner under a mounted buffalo head. The spot chose him; and he talked to the bison head. Having crossed the plain where buffaloes once roamed, he lost his way in a crummy, dark bar. “Christ!” he exclaimed. “Christ, what a pity and a shame. Imagine taking aim for the hell of it. Imagine the immense herds, with hundreds of thousands of buffalo galloping all at once. Then you single one out, the last of a breed, and end up here. “Christ! What am I doing?”
While he sat in a Texas jail, it all changed for him. He listened to Tex before he died talk about America the beautiful. The kid hadn’t reached the point of saying that yet. He would need to settle in before he did. He was too much on the go to appreciate any one place. Did he miss a turn somewhere, or get the wrong directions? Why was he alone in a strange place? Why did it all seem so inconsequential? He missed the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Mississippi as he soon missed San Diego, San Francisco, and LA. It got where he’d anticipate missing a place before he got there.
He did a lot of drinking. He developed a familiar blind way of drinking. What did he have to do with Tex’s death? He drank alone. He talked to the bison about his friend and didn’t expect a response. So he felt free to confront the bull who killed his friend. The bull was a cop. Tex never got the medical care he needed. He died in a boxcar. That somehow seemed fitting.
Jack spent his first days in LA on the streets. This experience equaled the experiences of other disaffiliated men. Sleepless at night and sleeping in a park during the day, his situation worried him. Fear was inevitable. Jack couldn’t get use to it. He felt nervous every time someone approached him. But he wasn’t going to give up easily, especially after successfully panhandling.
Wow, Hollywood! Follow the arc lights to Hollywood. Tinsel Town. Hollywood and Vine. The Walk of Fame roped off in anticipation of the stars. You see people who have followed those lights all the way from their hometowns, though not always cognizant of it. Not sure of the price of admission, Jack wondered whether he’d be turned away or not, as he stood outside Madame Tussaud’s Hollywood Wax Museum. In there, he saw a cast of characters, including Errol Flynn. “See Errol half-dressed, wearing only his boots, tights, and belt.” Jack was glad he wasn’t wearing ruffles and lace and didn’t want to hear how his drinking effected Errol Flynn’s acting career.
Strolling west on Hollywood Boulevard, he treaded over the golden stars of the famous, and came to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with its Heaven Dogs. He decided to explore all of Hollywood, and asked directions to RKO. He wanted to run into a star. Would he recognize one? Who would recognize Ned Johnson, the eminent screenwriter, or Steinbeck? What would he do if he saw Claire Trevor, who won that year’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Key Largo? As he slowly plodded along, he imagined the people he could possibly see. That was how he spent the day.
Someone sang “Mean To Me,” which was his favorite song. From behind him, he heard someone call, “Hey, you, yes you, that’s right you!” Was it a casting call? No! A cop, with a billy club, cornered him. Jack recognized the irony of this. The policeman never changed his tone, only intensified it until he screamed like a lunatic. “Slime ball, what does that sign say? No loitering! Look at me! Ain’t I making myself clear? No loitering! Soap and water are cheap; you hear me? Cheap!” And intimidated, Jack moved on.
After which, still shaking, Jack tried to board a bus. The portly driver took one look at him and started yelling. “Now, sir, please step back and watch it!” Whereupon Jack did the opposite, and when he stepped forward, the driver rose from his seat, dropped the “please,” and added an expletive. “Off the bus, you stinking mother fucker!” “Sheepishly Jack obeyed him and, as the bus sped off, felt stabbed.
But his alienation had just begun. You could see it in his eyes; but he couldn’t express it in words. He dreaded tomorrow, felt shackled, and lost sight of his future. Wandering the same streets alone, he ate and slept where he could. This became his routine.
He finally wrote home, sent an unsigned postcard. He couldn’t explain why he didn’t sign it. He said nothing about himself. No more specific than a few sentences about a buffalo head. All alone. Unable to write more, unable to cry he could’ve written about how quickly he developed street sense, and which meant he never took his eye off his stuff.
Around the Greyhound bus station and Whelan’s drug store, he asked people for spare change. By the end of the day he usually had enough money for a meal and a ticket for a show. On Main Street, old men in tattered clothing lined up for a burlesque show. Jack could be seen there too. Afterwards, he’d walk the streets thinking about the women of Paradise, of Hetty and Juanita, and of beauty and love. The thought of sleeping in the arms of Hetty, this was what drove him crazy. Time and time again, Jack went back to Main Street, but he surely didn’t expect much from it.
He watched the ladies exchange dirty quips with comics. Standing in line for love, yes, there was love on Main Street. Catching Jack’s attention with a gesture from a second-story window, communicating through pantomime and beckoning with a forefinger, the lady offered herself. He hurried across the street, hastened through the door and up a flight of stairs. There was no need to knock. The lady was ready to take his money. Five in the afternoon imagine that. They never showered. For both of them, it was serious business. So hurried, he failed to notice that there weren’t any sheets on the bed and immediately afterwards asked, “Was that it?” The lady then answered carelessly, “More will cost you more.” He just got out of there then.
What happened next to Jack seemed too good to be true. For one day intimacy, communion, and love seemed possible again. With a breath of spring and the smell of the sea, eternal hope once again gave him a reason to live. Almost instantly they connected. They were on a city bus; restrained their meeting seemed auspicious. For him some cosmic force seemed at work; and she should’ve known better. Next came a few awkward words from him about being new in town, which left him groping for something else to say. She took the opening, which then led to a long silence. Both of them had to catch their breath. Then he found out that she took this bus often, maybe as often as everyday.
On her way to school, she was determined to complete her college education. As they traveled from downtown, she began naming the places: “Vermont and Hoover and Franklin and Sunset.” Then with exuberance, she told him that she had only one class that day….”Beverly Hills, Bel Air, La Cienega, Venice,” and by this time, she had become his tour guide. Pointing out where the movie stars lived, she smiled and gave him her name. Elaine. By then Jack had learned how to talk with strangers and could open a conversation with almost anyone. In fact, he often felt closer to strangers than people he knew. That was true; and the conversations tended to be longer than conversations with friends.
Like a pair of cats exploring each other’s scent, they were within a few minutes able to share the essence of their lives. But Elaine, foreseeing where this might lead, tried to divert his attention to the usual places tourist go. “Everybody,” she said, “likes to go to Hollywood and Vine,” and he pretended he hadn’t been there and kept examining her thoughtfully. This intimacy made Elaine feel uncomfortable, so she told him about her boyfriend. What did Jack care?
To think they had a deep conversation, surprisingly deep, and he could lose her at the next bus stop. The bus stopped, turned there; and it was apparent that he didn’t know when it would come to the last stop and then turn around. She found him pleasant and the attention flattering. Impressed by his clean clothes and very neat cut hair, she didn’t think he had anything evil in mind. She could sense his determination but never guessed how much his appearance cost him.
On and off Arroyo Seco, bumper to bumper, there would be more time for them to talk because the bus went all the way to Pasadena. Optimistic, Jack hoped he could follow Elaine home. “Hello,” he said for about the fifteenth time, and Elaine repeated the word too. Neither one of them noticed any longer the streets or other people on the bus.
On the verge of taking her hand, his mind suddenly jumped to other things. Having such thoughts bothered him, especially when Elaine seemed like such a nice girl. But shucks, fuck! But so had the barge lady at first. He couldn’t help thinking about when he had scored before and felt screwed up. He slid the widow open and benefited from bus’ movement.
“Such a nice girl.” It seemed for minute as if she were the girl next door. It was if he were back in Richmond. He noticed Elaine had tiny breast, as he looked at her from head to toe. Her continuing the conversation kept him from becoming tongue-tied.
Pasadena wasn’t far enough away from LA; and before long, they had to pay for a return trip. Very soon Elaine had to reconcile missing her class and the particular madness of spending the day with a young man she had just met. She then started to frantically rationalize her behavior and couldn’t come up with an excuse for it. A crazy idea, it remained inexcusable. If he found out, her boyfriend would be livid. She planned to write in her diary about how cute Jack was. There might’ve been even a slight resemblance to Errol Flynn. Certainly Elaine had reservations about being picked up; but their meeting seemed so easy and natural. Jack appeared lonely and seemed as if he needed her. He wondered if she felt his manliness.
Before too long they were back downtown. The bus then turned onto Main Street and filled up again, requiring people to stand. Suddenly Elaine said, “Let’s get off.” Whoo, they felt pushed and crushed until pushing became like everything else. They felt trapped, though it didn’t matter to Jack.
“You look great.”
“So do you.”
But he doubted that she would later remember him.
Elaine’s thoughts jumped around from how beautiful the day was to the fuzziness of her motivation. It seemed strange that she’d skip class.
He took her hand, a gesture containing the drama of possibility, and guided her through a maze of people. Maneuvering down Main Street, they passed the theater where he had spent so many hours. Having enjoyed a ghost town never came up. They could’ve explored the Monastery, where within fifteen minutes you can say you’ve seen it all or spend the whole day there. But of course, Jack wouldn’t confess to a priest. He wouldn’t talk to anyone about his confusion and disillusionment or illusions, or how the death of Tex changed him. Somehow, until Elaine came along, it seemed as if he had been robbed of life’s music.
After passing up a movie or eating burgers and fries (he didn’t have the nerve to ask for a kiss), she got so excited about going into dress shops that she seemed to forget him. Of course, he didn’t have any money and she wanted to spend. With money from her own purse, she bought blouses and a skirt, and drove him crazy by trying on the whole store. Doing that, Elaine ran out of time.
She almost broke her neck hopping off the bus. Jack had to hurry to keep up with her. If he lost her he wouldn’t know where she lived. Unhappily then, he ran into her boyfriend, waiting impatiently for her at her house.
Just being with Elaine had been a dream and was super, super keen. Even considering her boyfriend and her letting him down, he felt that way. The experience lifted him out of the darkest period of his life. Jack could now leave Main-street LA and take his chances in a new dawn.
Except he now needed a passport and knew nothing about visas. “One world or none,” Wendell Wilkie’s phrase stuck in his head. For good reasons he needed papers. At that moment in history, unknown to Jack but obviously placing him in good company, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi and Einstein shared this sentiment. On the spur of the moment, he decided his chances for landing a job on a ship would be better in San Francisco. On the spur of the moment, he found himself hitchhiking again; and on the spur of the moment, he started preparing himself to leave the country he just as suddenly decided he loved.
From San Francisco Jack worked his way over to Manila, serving as a kitchen helper. Evidently he did his job well, but was never respected. The purser ran the ship and never ceased his extortion. Jack found himself most frequently his target. Most of the rest of the crew accepted him. The captain appreciated him, because Jack reminded him of when he first went to sea.