New York City, The Prequel: Knockin’ On Dayton’s Door

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Me in DaytonMe during my summer in Dayton, Ohio . Was I ever that young?

Hitchhiking wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the movies you got out of one car, stuck out your thumb and before long the next car comes along, the driver says, “jump in!” and you’re Kerouac-ing your merry way. Yeah! That’s the glory of the open road! You weren’t supposed to be standing for three hours on some deserted highway at some unknown location outside Toledo.

I wasn’t supposed to be hitchhiking. Weeks before I had a ride set up that was going to take me right after my home in Madison, Wisconsin to New York City as soon as I graduated. Literally on Friday before the Sunday I was going, I got a call from a guy named Alan Twyman who I’d met at a Job Fair. He ran a film distribution company in Dayton and he was offering me a job designing his catalog. I knew his company but I had rarely rented from them. He didn’t stock anything I couldn’t get anywhere else. But he seemed like a nice guy and the company was reputable. I was really excited about going to New York, but I decided to be practical, take a few months and make a few bucks. And isn’t the mark of a middle class kid the ability to postpone pleasure?

My film grad student friend Serafina Bathrick knew some filmmakers in Dayton named Julia Reichert and Jim Klein. They had made a highly regarded documentary called “Growing Up Female,” thus hitting the jackpot feministically-wise by being one of the first films out of the gate on the topic. For some reason, they lived in Dayton, of all places. Anyway, Fina called them and they were nice enough to let me spend a few nights at their house until I found someplace to live. So I had an address and a phone number.

I asked my friend who was going to take me to New York to take me as far as Toledo. So there I was, standing in this Beckettian nowhere-land, it was all my idea, I was hungry, and it was going to be dark soon. I figured it was time to pick up my trusty duffel bag and start walking. Eventually I had to reach a town or a house, right?

Well, no. You can drive on a highway going 60 or 70 and sometimes you don’t see anything for a long time. I estimated I was going about 5 MPH. Every now and then a car would come by and I’d stick out my thumb, but nobody ever even slowed down. I was going to have to suck it up, be patient, and keep going.

It was then I saw the fire. Somewhere in the distance there was something on fire. Maybe a house burning down? That would be wonderful. There would be firemen and families crying. They could throw one of those big blankets around me like they do in the movies for some reason. Maybe the firemen bring them with them? I could sure use a blanket, because I was freezing. And maybe they would have something to eat? It wouldn’t have to be fancy, even a peanut-and-jelly sandwich would do. Maybe some hot cocoa or cider served up from a thermos? That would really hit the spot.

But you know the way it is when you’re walking on some highway in the middle of the night outside Toledo and you see a fire? It may look like that fire is right next to you, but if you really believe that, let me assure you: you are wrong. You can walk and walk and walk and you won’t get anywhere near it. If I didn’t get a move on, the fire could go out and the fireman could leave and the weeping families would head out to spend the night with friends or at a reasonably-priced hotel. They would definitely take the blankets, the sandwiches and the cider with them. It was time to start running. I was 22 and in good shape and this kind of thing was still possible, even while toting a duffel bag.

But it wasn’t a house that was burning; it was a bonfire. Three idiots were burning leaves and other crap in a huge pile. In the middle of the night.

They were two boys and a girl, younger than me, probably 18. Farm kids, for sure. “Who the hell are you?” one of the boys asked me, a very reasonable question under the circumstances. I dropped my duffel bag and sat down on the ground next to them. They offered me a beer and I told them my story. They were extremely impressed. By my stupidity. Apparently there was a lot more nowhere ahead of me on that highway than my pinheaded college-educated brain could ever imagine. What the hell did I think I was doing? I would definitely have spent the night in some ditch. Or worse. They were in a very isolated place and there was no way I would ever have seen them if they hadn’t been sitting out that night in that field burning trash. Just call me a lucky guy.

But they were nice, and one of the kids, the one who was with the girl, had a guitar. I played a few Dylan and Beatle songs and he decided I was okay. He and his girlfriend took me inside and got me something to eat. She was the nice one. She was the one who suggested that they drive me to the bus station in Toledo. Of course in the movies they let you stay the night, and then it either becomes a horror movie or a Sam Shepard play, or preferably, the girl (who was very cute, by the way) would sneak into my room in the middle of the night and tell me I had to save her and we must run away together immediately. But driving me to the bus station was still pretty cool. I could live with that.

They knew the schedule, so I got there not long before the bus left. And here was another movie: me bidding a fond farewell to my newfound friends who I would never see again, headin’ out on the lonesome road again—a ramblin’ guy.

It must have been about 3 am when I got into the bus station in downtown Dayton. I called a cab to Julia and Jim’s house. Before we drove across a bridge I saw a pack of prostitutes, waving at us (more about this next week). It was sort of like a Fellini movie, only in Dayton, not Rome, which made it less scintillating, and I’m sure, less worthy of subtitling.

Julia and Jim lived in this suburban house on this nondescript street. This is where left-wing filmmakers resided? This was the revolution? This wasn’t the kind of place a guy like me wanted to be. This was my parents’ house. This is the kind of place you wanted to leave as soon as you can and go to New York City. And it was a good-sized spread. Those two must have a houseful of kids. Yuck! I had to get my own apartment as soon as possible.

All the lights were off of course. I tap-tap-tapped on the door but nobody answered. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to wake them up, but I didn’t want to spend the night on the porch either. So I just kept tapping softly. This was exactly like the movie scenes where the guy throws pebbles at the upstairs window of his lady love. He wants her to hear him, but he doesn’t want her parents to find out he’s there. If you want to be a successful romantic guy in the movies you have to have the delicacy and aim of Mariano Rivera and know a little something about physics. Wind shear. Got to get it just right or you’ll be in an “Animal House” movie and break the window. Anyway, this was the kind of balance I was striving for, to get inside without being perceived as an asshole who thumps on the door like the Gestapo.

Finally the door opened and this guy welcomed me in. He was the kind of person you like the minute you lay eyes on him. “You must be Reid,” he said, extending his hand, smiling warmly. “I’m Tony.” He was fully dressed. I hadn’t woke him up at all. He had probably been up reading a book by some important woman writer like Kate Millett, or judging by the house, Betty Crocker.

“How long have you been sitting out here?” he asked. “Why didn’t you knock louder? ”