Chapter 47: USA Part II
Philadelphia to Washington D.C.
Chief of Chiefs and Chief of the Turtles, Tamanend towered above the road. Rounding a tight corner, the cars raced past him and the unfurled eagle on his shoulder, a drag race onto the interstate. The white concrete was blazing in the sun. Uncomfortably bright, it made my eyes hurt but I’ve never liked hitchhiking with sunglasses on. Eye contact is key.
A pickup pulled over. “What’s up?” The driver nodded. I asked where he was going. “I’m not going anywhere, man, just going.” He looked confused. I told him I was hitchhiking to D.C. “Hitchhiking? I don’t know anything about that. I thought you wanted money or summin.” He drove on.
Philadelphia’s a good town to hitch out of. The interstate goes through the middle of the city and there’s a junction with a traffic light right there. If I had no luck, the bus stop was a ten-minute walk. A back-up’s always good for the anxiety. After an hour and a half I was beginning to think I’d need it. Tamanend remained unmoved.
Then quick round the bend and pulled to one side, a small Kia stopped up in front. The driver beckoned at me through the windscreen. “Okkkk!” He laughed as I got in, “Let’s do this!” He was excited and so was I. He was going all the way to D.C. The stress was over.
Matthew had driven past me already that day. His friend’s mum was going to Germany for the week and he’d taken her to the airport. He thought he’d loop back round and check on me after having seen my sign said D.C. Matthew was going down to watch the basketball playoffs with some mates. Philadelphia were against their old Boston rivals and it was a big match. He didn’t tell his friend’s mum any of this though. He was supposed to be housesitting for her.
“Ahh she’ll never know,” he said was a grin, “As long as I feed the cat tomorrow. She lives in a safe neighbourhood, nothing’s gunna happen!” He laughed again.
Matthew was a chiller. There are several types of chiller, with various reasons behind them and various degrees of chilled-ness. Chief among them is the philosophical chiller. The kind who chills for a very active reason: appreciation of life. The philosophical chiller understands what makes them happy and understands that breaking your back for reasons of money, prestige, success, or status is vacuous. You have to know yourself well to be that kind of chiller. It’s radical. Matthew was one of those.
“I’ve always sat strange man,” he replied cheerfully, when I remarked on his incredibly chilled-out way of driving. Arm on the windowsill, black leaning into the corner, left leg up and resting by the wheel. “Only issue is if we crash my leg would be screwed!”
He’d injured the same leg in his Tai Chi class a couple of days before. They had to do some sparring and he wasn’t quick enough finding a partner so was put with the guy no one wanted - a 200 lb professional cage fighter. Matthew was a small guy, scrawnier even than me.
“Yeah… he screwed me over! He flipped me straight within like two seconds and did my ankle in. I mean what can you do? The guy had a professional fight in Vegas five days before…and won! When you literally feed your family by fighting, I’m gunna have no chance!”
Tai Chi was a relatively recent hobby. That and running. He was enjoying getting fit and looking after his health. Through much of his college days he’d smoked pot and done drugs like most kids but he was growing out of it. He used to do psychedelics a fair bit too when he was younger. “I sorta learnt everything there is to learn from them,” he said, “you know what I mean? Ooooh we live in the universe..! Yeah it was fun but I’m kinda over it now.”
He’d still go to the occasional rave, do Molly with his friends and tell them how much he loved them, but that was rare nowadays. There was one on Friday, somewhere in the park in Philadelphia, hidden in a glade, but Matthew wasn’t going. Besides, his graduation was the day after and he didn’t want to be tired.
He needed a haircut before the ceremony, he said, cut out the highlights that had grown a little long. But he was proud of himself for getting the degree. It was an achievement. Initially, he’d thought he’d be a doctor, but like Joras, he didn’t think he was cut out for the long hours and hard work. Even nursing was a little intense. His sister was a nurse and though it was a great job, Matthew didn’t fancy it. With those ruled out, he was looking into the post-graduation chasm. He certainly wasn’t alone. The question of ‘what the hell do you do with yourself?’ faces most young people at some point. When the world and all the time in it lie open ahead, it’s hard to know which way you’re supposed to go. Why devote your life to that path when the one next to it looks just as good? It’s the paradox of choice, a tricky time, but Matthew didn’t let it get to him. He knew he’d work it out bye and bye.
First, he was going travelling when the summer came around. Europe was the plan. Spain, France and Italy, see the olive groves, the Med and the ruins of Rome. That would help arrange things in the mind. Everything’s clear when you’re on the road. Matthew was looking forward to it.
In the meantime it was back to the restaurant. Matthew was a waiter in a fancy joint in town. The tips were good on a good night but service wasn’t something he wanted to do forever. “Some people man,” he shook his head, “I’m like…really there are bigger problems than your lobster coming out cold! But you gotta be like, ‘Oh I’m so sorry ma’am, we’ll get that sorted out right away.’ Get’s to you after a while. Some people! But hey, I’m a humble guy, if I gotta work in service, I’ll work in service. I can’t complain.”
The best job he ever had was drug dealing. “It was literally free money,” he said. He did it at high school when the freshmen wanted weed. It was a straightforward gig and paid well. He was always careful and would do dead drops to avoid being seen. The dark web made delivery safe and easy too. But then he got in trouble and gave it up.
It was a little unfortunate. His parents had just moved house. The old place, where he’d grown up, was about to be sold so he and a friend snuck in one night for a last hurrah. They sat around in the living room and got stoned. They weren’t doing anything wrong. Then there was a big knock at the door. The neighbour had called the police.
He laughed self-deprecatingly at the memory, “I tried to get all fourth amendment and be like ‘You can’t come in, this is private property! I know my rights!’ But they were like, ‘Oh this one thinks he’s hard. Yes we can and we are.’ And they shoved me aside..!” Inside they found some weed and a bong and pressed charges. The bong was the issue, paraphernalia. Luckily they found a decent attorney and both managed to dodge 8 months in jail.
“There was some Xanax in my bag in the back too and I genuinely thank god every day they didn’t find them. I would have got eight years if they had. I’d still be in jail now.” The war on drugs had ruined a good many teenagers’ lives and Matthew was glad he wasn’t one of them.
We were crossing the Susquehanna. The river was wide and mighty and the banks were rich with trees, a sort of rich that doesn’t exist in Britain. Sugar maples, dense and delicious, lined the highway like clouds of gold in the evening.
“I honestly love the drive to D.C.,” Matthew said, “It’s beautiful. Especially in the fall.” I could believe it.
We passed a turnoff with a sign to a town. Matthew told me he’d been on a date with a girl from there. “Yeah so it was kinda odd, I gotta say,” he began, “She was Albanian and we arranged this date in Philly - bare in mind she’s from a town like an hour away - and we went for a nice walk in the park and everything was nice. But it was kinda weird coz she brought her whole family with her…!”
Matthew enjoyed falling in love. Not that he fell in love with that particular girl - or her family - but normally it was a hobby of his. “I’m pretty unlucky in love though I’d say,” he confided. He had one girlfriend he was especially into, “She was super cool. She was this beautiful sculptor, and we’d go down to the beach and stay in a motel and do loads of drugs. I was like wow this is amazing! I’m so in love! And then we just kinda stopped speaking and that was that…”
Up ahead there were some tall pinnacles protruding above the forest. From afar they looked like an evil castle or the lair of a powerful wizard. They had sharp gold finials that lanced the clouds and glowed in the sun. It was horrifying.
“Oh that,” Matthew replied, “It’s the Washington D.C. Temple. The Mormon Eastern headquarters or something like that.” The church was built in the 70s, the first one east of the Mississippi. How anyone could think it was a good idea to worship anything in a place like that I don’t know. There are usually two sides to religion - a beautiful, mystical, spiritual side, and a side about power and control. The Washington D.C. Temple seemed to make it pretty clear it was into the latter. It was haunting but strangely compelling. I stared at it until it was behind us.
A few drops of rain hit the windscreen as we dropped onto the Capital Beltway. It tumbled thick and heavy from a shredded dark cloud. Not more rain, I said aloud. After seeing New York nearly drown I’d seen enough for a year.
“Ah man, I love the rain,” he replied, “It’s beautiful. Honestly, I don’t know what it is. I love running in it. Going out and getting soaked through. There’s some connection you feel, it’s amazing!”
It was a good metaphor. Running in the rain, getting drenched. Feeling alive. And Matthew knew it. A chiller, taking it easy for all us sinners, to quote the Big Lebowski. That’s what it’s about.
He took me right to the door of Radhi and Ramesh’s in Vienna, a suburb of the city. Dal and a glass of wine hit home sweet after a long day on the road and I’d made good time, 7 hours in all. I waved Matthew off as he rounded the corner, left leg up, taking it easy, a long way from Philadelphia and his friend’s mum’s house. That’s how you house-sit, I thought with a smile.
I hope you enjoyed USA Part II. Stay tuned for part III (of four) next week.