“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” ~Vince Lombardi

9.18.03                                                                        10 mi. east of akela, nm

OKAY, I ADMIT IT. For the first time during The Greatest Year of My Life, I was feeling just a little bit worried.

An hour ago VanGo had suddenly lost power on I-10. Like an old war horse that had suddenly snapped an ankle, the old boy wheezed and sputtered off the interstate as the red oil light ominously lit up my dashboard. Once we’d somehow managed to roll into the only gas station/souvenir shop in Akela, NM, I jumped out of the car to discover a coat of oil covering the back bumper and the rear hatch that protected my engine from the elements.

Things weren’t looking good.

It was high noon. Hot as hell. And I was still almost 1500 miles from New Orleans, where I was supposed to pick up my friend Ruston at the airport tomorrow.

My first order of business was to call Dick, the mechanic back in Beaumont, CA who’d gladly taken $250 from me yesterday for a tune-up and carburetor repairs. His initial comment after he’d given VanGo the once over was: “You’ll be lucky to make it 100 miles in this car.”

He eventually ended up coming around — sort of — after he was able to successfully replace VanGo’s clogged carb jet, which had been responsible for all the sputtering and stalling at red lights I’d endured the last several days.

“You should be okay now,” Dick told me at the end of the day. Then he added a note of caution. “But this car is hard to get parts for. They don’t even make those carburetors you have on there anymore. Look, I respect what you’re doing. But you’ve got the wrong car to be doing it in.”

Even though the guy had 35 years of experience as a VW mechanic, I refused to buy into Dick’s pessimism. After all, I’d been across America and back 3 times already with VanGo. And what about all those Deadheads and Phish phreaks blissfully cruising around America in their VW buses? Where were they getting THEIR parts?

Somehow, when I pulled out of Dick’s foreign car garage yesterday at around 4 I was feeling pretty confident. VanGo seemed to be running better than ever.

Less that 24 hours later I was calling Dick from a fly-infested pay phone. Demanding to know why the hell my freshly-tuned up ride was now dripping with oil. Dick said it could be a few things: a faulty oil pressure switch, a part that could replaced for about $6 bucks; a defective or loose oil filter, another cheap-to-fix ailment; a blown oil cooler, a diagnosis that would require “dropping the engine,” a prospect that sounded expensive.

“Or it could be a blown piston,” Dick said.

“Which means what?” I asked, swatting away a pair of humping flies. “A new engine?”

“Yep,” Dick said without a whole lot of sympathy. “Hopefully it’s not that. But I can’t really tell you what it is without looking at the engine.”

I told Dick I was about 35 miles outside of Las Cruces, the best bet for finding a mechanic who worked on VW buses. Dick suggested I try to make it to Las Cruces, stopping every 3 or 4 miles to add more oil if need be.

So I took his advice.

I hadn’t gone more than 10 miles when I found myself in THIS predicament. Stranded on an empty stretch of 2-lane highway south of the interstate. I had followed Dick’s suggestion, only to discover that the knock coming from VanGo’s engine was becoming increasingly louder until the thing finally just quit. When I pulled the rear hatch open, faint clouds of smoke drifted from the engine.

I’m no mechanic. But this didn’t look good.

* * *

I decided to brave the scorching heat and try to ride the Huffy mountain bike P.’s brother-in-law had given me into Las Cruces. A few miles in I realized that making the 20-mile ride with no water and no signs of a thirst-quenching gas station/convenience store for as far as the eye could see was asking for a case of heat stroke. At the very least, I was bound to get 3rd degree burns on my exposed forehead.

Then I spotted a big white truck pulled over at the I-10 onramp. I noticed someone sleeping in the driver’s seat and decided to knock on the window. A fat guy with a walrus moustache woke up and timidly rolled down his window 6 inches.

“Sorry to wake you,” I apologized, “but my car just broke down back up the road and I need to get to Las Cruces to call a tow truck. Are you heading that way?”

“When I wake up I am,” the big man told me. He didn’t seem too happy about getting rousted from his nap.

“Really?” I answered eagerly. “Any chance you could give me a lift into town? After you wake up from your nap, of course. Would you be cool with that? I’m gonna start riding that way. But if you wouldn’t mind pulling over once you start heading that way and see me. Like I said, my car just died back there and I could use some good luck right now. Would that be cool?”

“Sure,” the big man said. Then he rolled up his window and went back to sleep. I was sure I’d never see him again.

I hadn’t ridden much farther than 4 or 5 miles when I heard a horn honking behind me. It was Big Man, pulling over in his pristine white rig. I quickly tossed my bike in the back of his truck and climbed into the air conditioned cab, happy as a trucker in a titty bar to be out of the heat.

He soon told me his name was Dave. That was almost all he said. He wasn’t one of those people who picks up a hitchhiker because he wants to talk. Dave picked me up because I had asked. And I only asked because the prospects of getting heat stroke while riding a crappy old Huffy mountain bike to Las Cruces wasn’t how I wanted to end this brutal day in New Mexico.

* * *

By the time Sal the Tow Truck Driver was dropping me and VanGo off at D&D Auto in Las Cruces, it was just after 5. I tried not to dwell on my dire circumstances: My car sounds like shit…I just spent $250 bucks to get it tuned up yesterday…If it’s something major, how the hell am I gonna pay to get it fixed?…It’s looking like I’m never gonna make to to Baton Rouge for the LSU/Georgia game tomorrow.

The guy at D&D Auto — another Dave — confirmed my worst suspicions. Upon hearing me start up VanGo he declared that I had definitely thrown a piston. The prognosis was not good. We don’t just need a little repair work done.

We need a new engine.

To make matters worse, Dave says he’s gonna have to call around to find one. The whole thing could take 2 to 3 weeks and end up costing me $1500 to $2000.

“You have a decision to make,” Dave told me. “Do you want to put that kind of money into a car that’s probably only worth $2000?”

Shit. This was not the prognosis I wanted to hear. Especially less than a week after getting some amazing news: 2 of my friends back in LA had agreed to underwrite my adventure for another year!

Once again, my timing sucked.

But this being The Greatest Year of My Life*, there was no room to wallow in self-pity. I told Dave to go ahead and look for a new engine. And at the urging of my friend Rob—one of my 2 generous benefactors back in LA—I promptly got me a shiny, almost-new rent-a-car.

By nightfall I was back on the road. Only now I was in an electric blue PT Cruiser. Blasting “Exile on Main Street” on the CD player. With the cruise control set at 80 mph as I rolled down Interstate 10. Back on track. On my way to Louisiana. Determined to get to Baton Rouge in time for the LSU/Georgia game Saturday.

Geaux Tigers!

the bright side

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” ~Bertrand Russell

9.16.03                                                                                los angeles, ca

RUTH DOESN’T WANT ME TO TAKE HER PICTURE. She thinks her eyes look puffy and red from crying. I think they look fine.

If she had a computer, Ruth could tell me whether or not she approved of today’s fuzzy photo. I tried to give her my old HP desktop not long after we were introduced 3 years ago by Kay Ginsberg from Friends to the Elderly, the program I’ve been a volunteer with since 1994.

But the perfectly functioning computer that was gonna be Ruth’s window into cyberspace just sat on the faux wood desk in her living room, freaking her out. At 76, the idea of joining the digital revolution sends Ruth into a nervous tizzy.

“You can take your computer back, darling,” she told me a week after I’d lugged it over to her small 1-bedroom apartment. “I’m too old to learn how to use one of those things. Besides, I probably couldn’t see it too well anyway with my eyes like they are.”

My friend Ruth is a woman consumed with fear and worry. And no wonder. Her gluttonous TV diet consists largely of watching the news and the various analysis shows. So of course Ruth is worried about terrorists. Health care benefits. Her 3 adult children. Her finances. Her heart.

Tonight she told me she’s been worried about getting the West Nile virus. Especially after talking to her daughter-in-law recently, who told her how brutal the mosquitos have been lately in Sharon, Massachusetts, the largely Jewish New England town 30 minutes south of Boston where Ruth wants to relocate to be closer to her youngest son David and his family.

I called Ruth tonight just after 7 to see if I could stop by for one final visit before I hit the road again. I told her how my LA departure had been delayed, due to the fact that the mechanic I took VanGo to for a tune-up today told me I need to rebuild both carburetors. Ruth gasped when I told her I was looking at a $500 bill, with no guarantees they could even get it done by the end of today.

“So I decided to get a second opinion,” I told Ruth. “I’m gonna spend the night at my sister Jeni’s place in Yucaipa. Hopefully the guy out there who worked on my car back in June can give me a more optimistic diagnosis and get it fixed in time for me to get on the road at a decent hour.

“But in the meantime,” I added, “would you mind if I stopped by on my way out of town to say goodbye?”

“Oh, Robert, COULD you?” Ruth gushed. “That’s exaclty what I need right now. I was just having a bout of the blues before you called.”

* * *

When I got to her place, Ruth told me about her latest worries. During a visit last week to her old cardiologist, the doc told her she shouldn’t be taking the medication she’s on for her diabetes. Apparently, the drug causes fluid retention, a fact none of her other doctors ever mentioned.

“Retaining fluids is what’s causing most of my problems,” Ruth said with a desperate mix of amazement and frustration. “The stuff with my lungs, the shortness of breath — and you mean to tell me NONE of my other 4 doctors knew that this drug I was on caused fluid retention? And if they DID know, why didn’t they tell me?!”

As Ruth shared her story, her eyes filled with tears and were instantly ringed in red. She conceded that she doesn’t know who to believe. She said she’s lost all faith in the medical system.

“I just want to DIE,” she said through the tears. “I’m not kidding. It’s all too much. I just wish I was dead.”

I pointed out to Ruth that she didn’t JUST lose her faith in the medical system. She’d already lost that a while ago.

“Plus,” I added, “it sounds like this whole situation is actually a good thing. The doctor says you should stop taking the diabetes medication. Which means one less pill to take. And not taking it should help your fluid retention, right? So now you’re breathing and all the other stuff the fluid retention affected just might improve. Right?”

Ruth wiped her eyes and laughed.

“So congratulations on your good news!” I told her, deftly taking her gloomy story and giving it the optimist’s sunny spin.

Minutes later Ruth was calling me her guardian angel. “I’d been so upset and I was praying to God. And then you called and showed up. It’s like you were dropped from heaven.”

When people ask me why I do volunteer work, I’m never quite able to articulate my reasons adequately. Maybe because there’s a million reasons. A series of little moments that add up to something bigger than any of us.

Moments like watching an old lady’s face light up when you enter the room.

Like hearing a kid who’s never trusted anyone somehow get up the courage to tell you he loves you for the first time.

Like the satisfaction of realizing that simply LISTENING is enough. And always will be enough.

Like witnessing a weary old soul fight off her armor of fear and pessimism long enough to wallow and glow in the adventure and absurdity of YOUR story.

It might sound trite and sentimental, but there is nothing like the gift of giving. Of knowing you helped someone’s heart sing again.

Tonight before we said our goodbyes, I saw the light return to Ruth’s eyes, if only for a while. She was cracking up over my twisted logic. And she was beaming when I told her about the 2 friends of mine who, over the last few days, have offered to underwrite my crazy trip for a year.

For a split second there, I almost forgot about how, a mere 20 minutes ago, Ruth said she wished she was dead.

* * *

I don’t know when I’m gonna be able to get online again. That mechanic I came all the way out here to Yucaipa to see? Well, I discovered tonight at 1 in the morning when I went to drop off VanGo that he is going on vacation tomorrow. Now I’ve got to head out to a place he recommended 15 miles down the road in Beaumont.

Hopefully, this new guy can get VanGo healthy again. And pronto.

At this rate, I’m gonna be flying on NoDoz and ice tea just to hit Baton Rouge in time for LSU/Georgia on Saturday.

I’ll keep you posted, Ruston.


An edited version of this post appears in the book B.O.B a blog story (vol. 1 — here & there).

not-so-little orphan ernie

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ~Helen Keller

9.8.03                                                                                    los angeles, ca

ONE OF THE MANY THINGS I LOVE ABOUT ERNIE IS THE WAY HE JOKES ABOUT BEING AN ORPHAN. When someone does something nice for him, which is not uncommon, he’ll go into his endearingly cheesy game show announcer voice and deadpan something like: “Another generous donation to the Poor Orphan Relief Fund!”

Ernie is, without a doubt, one of the funniest, wittiest people I know.

Then again, it’s pretty much been that way from the day I met him nearly 15 years ago. Back when he was a fast-talking, sugar-loving 9-year-old living at the very same Hollywood orphanage where Marilyn Monroe was dropped off when she was 9.

Unlike Marilyn, though, Ernie never knew HIS schizophrenic, drug-addled mother. Never met his father, either. Instead, he had the good fortune to be dumped into the overcrowded, mismanaged child welfare system as a baby. For the first few years of his life he bounced from one foster home to the next. Finally, at age 6, Ernie was adopted by a Long Beach janitor and his Asian wife.

But the couple who bought him a million toys thinking THIS was how you loved a child eventually grew impatient—and violent—when Ernie began lying and selling his toys at school for candy money. More than once he went to school with welts and bruises on his back and butt from the punishment doled out by dear old “dad.”

When he was 9, Ernie’s frustrated “mother”—who’d signed papers making him her state-sanctioned son just 3 years earlier—gave her husband an ultimatum: “Either the kid goes or I go.”

And so he went. To Hollygrove in January of 1989, thinking he was being driven off to camp.  (Although he became suspicious when “mom” and “dad” were sobbing as they dropped him off at the big brick building 2 blocks from Paramount Studios.)

About 3 months later I was introduced to a knock-kneed runt who told big fish stories about his “dad” and gave me shit for taking so long to get my paperwork together so we could get started with this “special friend” thing.

On our first outing together he dripped his .25 cent triple scoop of Thrifty ice cream all over the front seat of my red convertible Jeep. And he entertained me with a hilarious self-composed rap called “Booger In the Bathtub,” complete with classic lyrics and thumping bass line.

He’s been teaching me patience and cracking me up ever since.

*     *     *

Today’s story might just be my favorite yet of this crazy trip. It’s a story that’s blown me away time and time again over the last decade and a half.

On the surface, my first Saturday night back in LA in over 3 months may not have looked like much. Nothing more than a few old friends—me, Ernie, his nurturing girlfriend Gloria and crazy Carver—getting together to hang out.

For me, though, the night felt so much more meaningful. Because it was my first visit to Ernie and Gloria’s new place, a charming little 2-bedroom in a well-kept 2-unit duplex. A stone’s throw from the 20th Century Fox lot, not far from the writer’s bungalows where the brilliance of The Simpsons is channeled. Doh! And a 40-yard dash across Pico to the 3-par where P. and I chased the ever-elusive hole-in-1 and sub-par round of golf nearly every weekend not so long ago. Ernie’s new home is even quiet, despite the fact that his next door neighbor is dating Marilyn Manson’s drummer.

What got me beaming with pride Saturday night, though, was seeing what Ernie and Gloria had done with the place.

The walls were painted in funky olive greens and candy apple reds. Ernie had ripped up the living room carpet and buffed out the dark hardwood floor. A string of bamboo chutes hung where a bedroom door once creaked. Red ceiling bulbs and a vintage Asian poster picked up at a thrift store gave the kitchen a cool vibe, The state-of-the-art dishwasher a previous tenant had won on The Price is Right was nice, too. Ernie even had an extra bedroom in the back to do his art and play his music. Not to mention a big backyard, a garden in need of TLC and a roomy garage.

After years of shitholes and state-funded way stations, Ernie finally had a HOME. And he pulled it off with sweat, perseverance and integrity.

*     *     *

I found myself getting choked up as I got the tour of Ernie’s new pad. I couldn’t help flashing back to where he’d been—and how far he’d come to get here. Amazing.

During our first 3 years together, when I’d pick him up every other weekend and bring him back to my bachelor pad in Manhattan Beach, Ernie lived in various “cottages” at Hollygrove, where the staff was kind and supportive. But Ernie was obviously scarred and scared by the circumstances that brought him there in the first place. So while he could be charming and hilarious one minute, he was just as likely to lose his temper or retreat into a shell of silence the next.

His 3 years at Hollygrove saw Ernie forever getting in trouble at school for things like putting Super Glue on his teacher’s chair, dumping itching powder down a classmate’s shirt and tossing rocks from the playground onto Melrose Avenue, where he once hit a pissed off dude on a chopper.

Our twice-a-month weekend visits consisted of hanging out at the beach, trips to Taco Bell and staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live. Once in a while Sister Tracy, who loved him like the adorable nephew she craved, would come out from Covina to hang out with us.

On drives along the coast we sang along to Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (“I’m freeeeeee, free faaaaaaaaallin’…”) and I took him to movies like Field of Dreams, where he got an upset stomach from the Pink’s chili dogs and movie theater candy he wolfed down. Ernie even spent holidays with my big, disjointed family, which must’ve made getting dropped off back at Hollygrove excruciating for him.

For me, it was like being a divorced dad. Without the ex-wife and child support payments.

But there was a price to pay for having Ernie in my life. The behavior that drove the Long Beach couple to return him like an unwanted wedding gift also surfaced from time to time.

The first time I took Ernie Christmas shopping at the mall he shoplifted a whoopee cushion.

He later tried to “clean” the fish in my dad and stepmom’s backyard pond with laundry detergent, killing their entire collection of expensive koi.

While staying at my family’s cabin in Green Valley, Ernie took $20 bucks from my cousin’s purse on the same day he nearly started a forest fire, which brought a visit from the local fire department.

Then there was the time he lifted 5 credit cards out of my desk and took them to school, which somehow resulted in $4500 in charges from a pair of obscure towns I’d never heard of in Russia.

And that was just the first 3 years of our relationship. The Hollygrove years were only the beginning. Things were just starting to get interesting.

*     *     *

Ernie was finally moved to a group home in the rural town of Acton, which added another 90 minutes to my drive. Our visits became less frequent, though no less entertaining. But within 2 years, Ernie would get busted for doing speed in the boy’s bathroom at school.

Which led to a few years at a juvenile detention facility in Woodland Hills. He was no longer allowed to come stay with me. Holidays with my family were out of the question, too. It was during these years that I bought Ernie a guitar and the materials he needed to paint. I also encouraged him to write, which he did with alarming proficiency.

By his 16th birthday, Ernie was out on good behavior and living in a cramped foster home/soulless apartment with 3 other boys from child services and 6 cats that gave the place a foul stench. Plus Arnie, a sullen, obese career foster parent who treated me like a pariah every other weekend when I showed up to visit Ernie for the afternoon. (Overnight visits were still verboten, even though Arnie’s lax “parenting” helped Ernie return to a life of chronic drug use, habitual truancy and petty crime.)

Months before his 18th birthday, Ernie ran away from Arnie’s and began staying with various friends, at least one of whom became his partner in a series of thefts and other illegal activities I never quite got the details of.

A few months after his 18th birthday on March 31, with nowhere to live and no money to get his own place, I let Ernie move into my small 1-bedroom apartment near the Beverly Center. Despite the fact that I was in the thick of trying to finish “The Book” and had little time or space to help him get on his feet. I did, however, insist he find a job.

But after I caught him in yet another lie regarding his attempts at finding work, I told Ernie I was moving in with P. He had another month in my apartment to get his shit together before I gave up the place.

By the end of the summer, Ernie was in jail. Convicted of snatching a purse from an elderly woman. A crime that felt like a double slap in the face, seeing as how he knew I’d been visiting an amazing 88-year-old lady named Henrietta in my volunteer work for the local Friends to the Elderly program.

*     *     *

A year behind bars changed Ernie’s life. Since he was released from Wayside County Jail over 4 years ago he has completely transformed himself. He’s been working at a Beverly Hills printing company, where he started off making copies over 3 years ago. Now he manages a small staff of office workers, handles the accounting duties, goes on sales calls to million dollar companies and does much of the graphic design work.

Ernie’s also been going to college off and on at Santa Monica City College and wants to enroll full-time next fall in the same art school where Dennis Hopper went. A couple years ago on his 21st birthday we organized a gallery/fundraiser showing 35 of his art pieces. He sold 31 of them, raised over $10,000 and got featured on the local 5 o’clock news along with a big piece in the LA Times.

Despite his moral and spiritual transformation in the 4+ years since he got out of jail, Ernie’s post-jail living conditions have ranged from squalid to cramped to dangerous to even haunted. He went from a Jewish halfway house near downtown LA to the floor in a small nearby room occupied by his friend Shaun, Shaun’s mom and Shaun’s uncle. From there it was on to a room at the Covenant House in Hollywood, a shelter for homeless teens.

Ernie’s first apartment, shared with another “homeless” teen who never washed a dish or lifted a finger to help clean up, was a small, albeit inexpensive, Covenant House-owned apartment on Franklin near the Hollywood Bowl.

After he’d used up his eligibility in the Covenant House program, Ernie and Gloria moved into a tiny, roach-infested 1-bedroom hovel in a seedy area of Hollywood. Within a year they’d moved again, this time into another 1-bedroom place around the corner from the tourist buses at the Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.

Before long Gloria became sick, thanks to a dangerous mold in the walls. Then Ernie had an odd experience one night when he heard some dishes rattling in the kitchen. Then he saw what looked to be the ghost of a young boy sitting on his couch. The next day the building manager told him a family had been murdered a few years back in the apartment above them.

So that’s why it was so gratifying to see Ernie in his new place tonight. The ghosts are behind him.

The future, finally, is looking bright.

the kids are alright

“A wise person cares not for what he cannot have but for what he can achieve.” ~today’s fortune cookie

9.1.03                                                                                            winnetka, il

TODAY’S PIC WAS ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE PHOTOS THAT WAS TOO COLORFUL TO POST IN BLACK AND WHITE. That’s Carrie, 9, and her brother Patrick, 10, the 2 youngest siblings among the 6 Atkinson kids, who’ve kept me highly occupied and completely entertained during my 3 nights here.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Atkinsons in the feedback section of my web site, they’re the generous, funny family I met at my friend Edmund’s wedding on July 12th in Grafton, VT. After hanging out with them at the wedding, the Atkinsons kids — and their cool mom, MaryAnn — sent me a couple e-mails letting me know I was welcome at their big house in the posh suburb just north of Chicago. Even if my VW bus did threaten to drive down property values in their swanky neighborhood.

Team Atkinson has a sweet WiFi setup in their endearingly chaotic 3-story house, where they’re surrounded by neighbors like the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, the anchorwoman on the local ABC news and various doctors, lawyers and CEOs. But this is the first time I’ve had a chance to do any work on my site since I got here Thursday evening in time for a delicious steak dinner. (It’s late Monday night — nearly 2 AM — right now.)

I’ve been THAT busy.

To say that I’ve had one of the most memorable Labor Day weekends of my life would be putting it mildly. And I want to write extensively about it. I’ve met and hung out with so many great people since my last posting that I am craving more time to write the stories.

But I’m heading out tomorrow. Destination: Omaha. And Patrick wants me to take him to school in the morning. Which means I can’t be staying up until 4 AM tonight.

So the details will have to wait.

* * *

I’m amazed at how the days can get crammed sometimes with so many meaningful, memorable experiences. Back in LA, when I was holed up in my home office with Ringo the Cat, I could go days without seeing a new face or having a moment that resonated in my soul. The minutes, the hours, the days often became a forgettable timeless blur of monotony.

And now there is this. Snippets of time when change is constant. New faces are everywhere. Inspiration abounds.

Again, I don’t have time right now to get too deeply into the details. But since my last posting from Pittsburgh last Wednesday night, I’ve chugged from a deep well of life experience and chance encounters. In a mere 5 days here’s a brief, incomplete, rundown of what and who I’ve encountered:

…on the road to Columbus, Ohio last Wednesday night I got pulled over by a Wheeling, West Virginia cop who looked suspiciously like Sgt. Stepdad, the man responsible for much of my adolescent fear and despair. Unlike the Sarge, though, the Wheeling cop felt a little compassion for me and not only didn’t write me up for going 57 in a 45 zone, he also insisted I follow him through Wheeling and back onto the interstate, where I’d be heading back in the right direction.

…minutes later, I got a phone call from an angry P., who was pissed about my most recent posting from New Hope. She thought what I wrote made her sound self-absorbed and unsupportive, which she most assuredly is NOT. I told her I’d be more than happy to post her perspective on this matter. (She said she’d think about it once she got a good night’s sleep.)

…on Thursday I arrived in Winnetka and was greeted by a pack of eager Atkinson kids, who enthusiastically showed me around the house before we sat down to a delicious steak dinner, followed by fun, fun, fun with the kiddies in the big backyard.

…on Friday afternoon, mama MaryAnn took me for a ride in her black Porsche to the local country club, where we had lunch with 2 of her very cool sisters, Bean and Maggie, and their funny mom, who shared the perspective of a woman who raised 9 kids, all of whom are married with many children. (She’s got 34 grandchildren!)

…that night I drove up to Green Bay, where I not only witnessed an inspired performance by the Obsoletes, a young band from nearby Neenah, Wisc., brimming with talent and promise. But I also heard some incredible stories from Matt, the band’s de facto roadie and childhood friend, who told me about how he got over the death of his mother after she died from getting hit by a dump truck 3 years ago. I also got into a long discussion with Mike — father to Obsoletes’ bassist/singer/co-songwriter Justin — himself a frustrated songwriter and longtime garage band singer who told me about his own father’s deathbed confession and his frustration about having a large collection of mostly unfinished songs.

…after crashing in Neenah at the cluttered apartment of Justin and Tim, the other songwriter/singer/guitarist in the Obsoletes, I had lunch with Tim and his girlfriend Rebecca at the iHop in nearby Appleton, where we shared road trip stories, discussed our favorite writers and talked about Rebecca’s 2-year-old little girl and her love of the Beatles. After lunch we went back to the apartment, where Rebecca told me about her big brother who’s been missing for 9 years and Tim filled me in about the many incarnations of the Obsoletes/Yesterday’s Kids.

…after saying goodbye to Tim, who burned me a few CDs of his acoustic tunes and some of his favorite music, and Rebecca, who gave me a collection of Douglas Copeland essays and a book called The Kindness of Strangers — former Yesterday’s Kids drummer Joe and his brother were there, too — I drove across town to hang out with Justin’s dad, Mike. I was in a hurry to get down to Milwaukee, but Mike couldn’t have been more welcoming. I had a beer, hung out on the back patio with Mike, his girlfriend Kristine, who made me a turkey sandwich for the road, plus Jamie and Doug, Mike’s former brother-in-law and current next door neighbor. The 4 of them sent me on the road with a big dose of Wisconsin hospitality and Mike handed me a CD of a bunch of songs he and Justin, along with their friends, recorded a few years ago in Mike’s basement recording studio.

…and then there was the Harley Davidson 100-year anniversary celebration in Milwaukee that night, where I hug out with Cousin Bill, who made the trip out from SoCal on his Harley, complete with a road-reddened face and a slew of hilarious stories. Not only did we see Jimmy Van Zandt perform “Freebird,” but I met Lisa Lips, the local girl who enthusiastically offered to show me her boobs. Plus Jeff, the most blissed out Vietnam vet in America, thanks to thousands of miles of Harley-fueled road tripping; and Rene, the Tennessee mom whose leg was amputated just below the knee exactly 3 months to the day before I met her. (More on my memorable Milwaukee pit stop later.)

…then there was the Cubs game the following day with papa Mike Atkinson and 2 of his boys; dinner that night at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in Winnetka with the whole Atkinson clan, plus their friends Howard and Margaret, their 2 kids and 4 of oldest son Jimmy’s friends; lots of ping pong games with the Atkinson boys (congratulations on those 2 tainted victories Jimmy); Chinese takout Monday night; jamming on guitar with Charlie, the 2nd oldest son, who helped me get started on “Ode to the Atkinsons,” yet another odd gee-tar tune from Bad Voice Bob; watching a few of my short films on Charlie’s iMac, where I got grilled from the boys about the death of Sister Tracy…

But more on this stuff later. Right now I need my rest. Tomorrow it’s time to get back on the road. Where I’ll have lots of time to bask in the beauty of these last few days.

Onward to Omaha and beyond…