Family and/or Autobiography

The Cornhusker Con

I would live there if they had rabbits this large.
I would consider  living there if they had rabbits this large.

It is widely said that people from Nebraska are lovely and generous. Maybe it was just a stereotype, but, boy, did I need that stereotype to be true.

I was driving alone from New Jersey to Salt Lake City and I kind of miscalculated the cash thing. Davenport, Iowa, was about halfway to my destination, so one-quarter of my money should have been gone. But no matter how many times I counted and recounted my remaining bills on the rumpled motel comforter, I was missing a third of it. Staying in motels every night and eating out three times a day was expensive, apparently.

But Nebraska was one state over — and I had a mooching plan in place. I didn’t know if my plan would work, but I had to try. My bankroll was depending on it. Before I checked out, I made a call to Lincoln. Brian, my college friend, lived there. I hadn’t spoken to him in years.

Brian was an interesting person. He entered Carnegie Mellon University – one of the nation’s finest engineering schools – planning to study engineering, a career that was always in demand and paid very well. Midway through his sophomore year, however, Brian had an epiphany. He decided to switch majors. He needed to pursue graphic design, a career that was hardly ever in demand – and on the rare occasion that it was, the pay was terrible. Carnegie Mellon University, it should be noted, is not one of the nation’s finest design schools. I know this first hand. I lived the Carnegie Mellon design experience and was underwhelmed by it.

Oh, and Brian also played the bagpipes.

Armed with these life skills, it should come as little surprise that two years after getting his degree, Brian was unemployed and living at home with his parents.

But he was also a Nebraskan. If the popular assumption held true, he would be lovely and generous.

My phone call to Brian went something like this:

Me: Hey, Brian, it’s Mike Allegra!

Brian: Mike! Oh, my God! I haven’t talked to you in… I don’t know how long! How are you?

Me: I’m good, I’m good! Listen, I’m driving across the country.

Brian: You are? Awesome!

Me: I’m in Iowa right now.

Brian: Stop by and see me!

Me: That’s exactly what I wanted to do! I should be in Lincoln at around dinnertime. You want to get dinner?

Brian: Yeah!

Me: Great! (Beat.) Oh, one more thing. Do you know of any good motels in town?

Brian: Oh, no, no, no. You’re not staying in a motel. You can stay with us!

Me: No, Brian. I couldn’t do that!

But of course could. And I did.

A few hours later I met Brian’s very nice and very Nebraskan parents. They were lovely and generous.

“Driving across the country! My goodness!” Brian’s mom said. “You’re a long way from home. You must have dirty laundry.”

My brain jumped for joy. More mooching!, it shouted. OK. Play it cool. Just like you did with that motel B.S.

“I have some laundry,” I said. This was a bit of an understatement as pretty much everything in my suitcase was dirty by now. “After dinner I was going to ask Brian to point me to a laundromat.”

She waved my comment away as if it was a lazy mosquito. “Oh, stop it! Put your dirty clothes right here. I’ll do them while you and Brian catch up.”

“No, I couldn’t!” I protested.

But of course I could. And I did.

So, while Brian’s mom scrubbed nearly 1,000 miles of dusty road out of socks that smelled like regurgitated corn chips, Brian showed me the city.

Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, was a lot smaller than I had anticipated. It wasn’t a city at all, really. It resembled the downtown of a charming suburb that had found prosperity but had yet to discover ostentation. In its unique way, it was kind of perfect.

“Burger place, OK?” Brian asked.

“Sure!” I said, even though I knew I should’ve said no. I had grown a bit too acquainted with red meat on this particular journey. This awful diet, coupled with countless hours of sitting behind a steering wheel, was starting to cause me a bit of discomfort.

To be frank, I hadn’t pooped since Baltimore. But I ignored my rebellious lower intestine. I sensed another opportunity to mooch and that was where I placed my undivided attention.

Play it cool, my brain said. Now go get a free burger.

Oh, and a milkshake. I wanna milkshake, it added.

We trundled into a restaurant designed to mimic the neon and chrome feel of a ‘50s drive-in. As I held the door open for Brian, I said, rather off-handedly, “My treat.”

“No,” he replied, a hint of firmness in his voice. (Just a hint, mind you. Brian was Nebraskan, after all.) “You’re in my town. My treat.”

“No, Brian. You’re doing so much already. We’ll split the bill.”

“No. My dad even told me to buy your meal.”

“That’s really nice of him, but I couldn’t.”

But of course I could. And I did.

Under these happy circumstances I thought it was appropriate to order a bacon cheeseburger deluxe. With a milkshake, of course. And some extra onion rings on the side. All the food was piled high in merry, red plastic baskets the size of office garbage cans. I hadn’t eaten so much since the previous Thanksgiving.

Brian and I talked and reminisced and laughed for hours. We just picked up where we left off our senior year of college. Brian really was a good guy.

Halfway through the meal, I excused myself to go to the men’s room. The lone stall was occupied, which was fine, for my lower intestine remained plugged up and petulant. I did my business at the urinal.

That was when I noticed the wallet on the edge of the sink. It was stuffed with so much cash, it was about as fat as the burger I had just forced down my gullet. I assumed the wallet belonged to the guy in the stall. But, if so, why would it be siting on the sink out of his view where anyone could just grab it? Why wasn’t it in the stall? With him? In his pants pocket?

I was horrified that anyone anywhere would ever do such a stupid thing.

For a moment I thought I might have wandered into a police sting. But judging by the noises Mr. Monopoly was making in the stall, the guy was clearly not prepared to take down a potential thief.

At this point in the story I would like to point out that, as a rule, I do not chat with people in restrooms. I hate it. I avoid it at all costs.  But if ever there was an occasion for me to do so, it was now.

“Um. Sir? Excuse me. Is this your wallet?”

The man’s strained, tremulous voice echoed off the tiles. “Hm? Oh, on the sink? Yeah… That’s mine.”

I had startled him in the middle of his business. The awkwardness was not lost on either of us.

“Do you, um, want your wallet in the stall? With you?”

“No. Uh. No. It’s fine. If… If you’ll excuse me…”

Red faced, I apologized for my interruption, washed up, and returned to my table, leaving the rich bounty behind to bewilder some other passerby.

I just had to share my new anecdote with Brian. But when I did, I was surprised to discover that the story didn’t surprise him at all.

“We don’t live in fear here,” he said.

“I don’t live in fear in New Jersey, either, but I don’t leave my wallet out like that.”

“Why not?” Brian asked.

“Because I don’t want anyone to take it!”

“That’s a kind of fear, though, isn’t it?” he asked.

“No. It’s common sense.”

“You lock your car, you lock your house, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Even though you live in a safe town, right?”

“Sure.”

“Why? Because you’re afraid something will get stolen.”

OK. Yes. I am. But leaving a wallet on a men’s room sink? That’s just –”

“That’s a little extreme, even for around here,” Brian admitted. Then he smiled. “But it does give you a pretty good idea of what Lincoln is like.”

It sure did. And for some reason, it made me not like Lincoln very much. The people here were too alien. Too trusting. Too innocent. Too nice. By comparison, I was a selfish, manipulative turd. Lincoln, in it’s inoffensive, kindly way, called attention to who I was — and I hated who I was.

“Brian,” I said. “I want to pay the bill.”

“Already got it, buddy,” he replied.

I returned to Brian’s house to find my clothes cleaned and folded on the guest room bed. Brian’s mom even folded my underpants.

This was all too much. Right then and there I decided to leave first thing in the morning. Dawn. I would graciously refuse breakfast, thank them all repeatedly and profusely for their generosity, and head west in search of more corrupt places where my casual misanthropy would be the rule rather than the exception.

But I was more tired than I knew — and the bed was more comfortable than anything I had laid on in the past week. I awoke at 9:45. I was greeted by an empty house.

I found two notes on the kitchen table. The first was written in a pristine, near calligraphic cursive. It was from Brian’s mom. In it, she apologized that she and her husband had to leave for work. Then she invited me to stick around and make myself breakfast. “Just close the door behind you when you’re ready to leave,” she wrote.

The second note was in Brian’s hand. He wrote how happy he was to have seen me. His note contained an apology, too, for he neglected to tell me the night before that today was his first day at a new job. Brian was working as a designer at last.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

Nebraskans were more lovely and generous than I could have possibly imagined. I didn’t belong here.

Time to go, my brain said. I hoisted my bag — now filled with clothes that were clean, folded, and smelling like a spring breeze — and headed for the front door.

But I paused in the foyer to listen to my brain once more.

I’m kinda hungry, it said.

Brian’s mom said it was OK, it said.

Do you think you could find some frozen waffles? it asked.

But of course I could. And I did. And, despite my troubled conscience, they were delicious.

Family and/or Autobiography

A Short Fuse

Big? Yes. Wonderful? Not so much.
Big? Yes. Wonderful? Not so much.

Sometimes a person needs to blow something up.

At least that how I felt as I drove through a lonely stretch of Wyoming desert. I was on a journey to Utah, the goal of which was to get my head together, devise a plan for my future, and hope that Fate would give me some kind of a sign.

I had traveled more than 1,200 miles. Fate offered up no signs. In fact, the only signs I came across were billboards selling fireworks.

Fireworks are illegal in my home state of New Jersey, so I couldn’t help but marvel at just how many fireworks stores existed west of the Delaware River. Every one had its own colorful billboard, pleading with me to me try my hand at losing my fingers. At first these offers weren’t difficult to resist. I found fireworks stupid. Also, I was fond of my fingers and wanted to hang on to all ten.

As my car sputtered further from home, however, as the states got longer and more featureless and Fate continued to oversleep its alarm, the billboards became more persuasive. By the time I reached that Wyoming desert, I had decided that fireworks weren’t stupid at all. In fact, it seemed more and more stupid to not blow something up.

I’ll be careful, I told myself. If I’m careful, I probably won’t lose my fingers. In a worst case scenario I might blow off a pinkie, but who really needs a pinkie? And maybe a missing pinkie will impress girls. I’ll tell them I lost it in Desert Storm.

The matter was settled. I vowed to stop at the next fireworks store I could find.

Minutes later I was greeted by a billboard.

Fireworks! 1 Miles (sic) Ahead!

“Billboard” is too generous a term; it was a large, hand-painted sign tamped down along the side of the road. I decided it was charming. It’s probably a mom ‘n’ pop explosives store, I thought. I was always a big believer in patronizing independent businesses, so this suited me just fine.

I soon spotted the store near the horizon, standing out among the rock formations and wisps of brown scrub. It wasn’t a store as much as it was an aluminum Airstream trailer on a cinder block foundation. It glistened like a beacon in the midday desert sun. Parked next to the trailer and almost as luminous was a 1970-something sedan painted in a “Have A Nice Day” shade of yellow. They were the only man-made objects for as far as the eye could see.

I pulled alongside the yellow car, which was huge in a way only 1970-something American-made sedans can be. It was pristine and spotless, as if it just came off the factory line with a fresh coat of Turtle Wax. The only thing interrupting the perfect, ding-free surface was an 18-inch-long, metal American flag bolted to the rear fender. (I had discovered that the further west I traveled the more often people used American flags in their decorating. The events of 9/11 would amp up the East Coast’s level of patriotism, but in the 1990s, flags in New Jersey were about as rare as a street corner in Perth Amboy that didn’t smell like feet.)

After admiring the sedan a moment more (it was quite a contrast to my filthy, exhausted Plymouth Duster) I clomped up the two steps into the trailer.

Inside the setup was simple and efficient. Running the length of the trailer was a long glass counter displaying explosives arranged with the studied, loving care one might use to show off Tiffany watches. Behind the counter, from floor to ceiling, were open shelves showing off cheaper, more utilitarian, weaponry. An entire shelf was dedicated to the types of explosives that I thought only existed in Roadrunner cartoons.

In stock.
In stock.

This was my very first visit to a fireworks shop and I was kind of in love.

The trailer was empty, so I loitered for a long moment taking it all in. In the glass cabinet, I spotted something black and menacing, a softball-sized sphere with a not-quite-long-enough fuse.

‘Woah,” I said aloud and leaned on the counter to get a better look.

Upon touching the glass, a flash of movement shot up from behind the counter and sent me slamming backward into the wall.

The source of my alarm was the largest German shepherd on earth. He stood on his hind legs and pressed his front paws on the counter as if he was there to wait on me. In that pose he was as tall as I was.

The dog stared at me. He wasn’t angry – I could see that much – but he wasn’t happy either. I sensed he could emotionally go either way. His stare told me that his mood depended entirely on what I decided to do next.

So I did nothing. Both of us were as still as a Natural History Museum diorama.

To my relief, I heard a chipper yell from outside. “Coming! Coming!”

The door flew open and in strode a dusty man with the hungry, lean muscular build of someone accustomed to a life of hard work. In one graceful move, he propped his butt up on the counter top, swung his legs over it, and spun to face me from the other side. He pressed his enormous hands against the counter, mimicking the pose of the dog standing to his left.

He projected a broad smile. “Saw your plates!” he said with undisguised awe. “You’re from New Jersey!”

“Yup.” I said, smiling back.

The man gave the German shepherd’s head a little scratch.

“Beautiful dog you have there,” I said as a pried myself off the far wall.

“Sure is,” his smile grew wider as he scratched the dog again. “Bud is my friend and protector.”

The dog nuzzled the man’s hand and opened his mouth in a slight, doggy grin. Despite his contentment, Bud never took his scrutinizing eyes off me. Bud was indeed a protector.

“Why are you all the way out here?” he asked.

“To buy fireworks!” I said, and we both shared a chuckle.

“They’re illegal where I’m from,” I went on. “So I decided to get some in Wyoming.”

This time the man did not share my chuckle. He only nodded as if he understood the situation all too well.

“Fireworks are a symbol of our freedom,” he said. “You know that, right?”

His question caught me off guard.

“Sure,” I replied.

“When someone denies you the symbol of your freedom, they are denying you freedom.” His tone was harsh, accusatory, as if I might be the one responsible for New Jersey’s fireworks law.

Then he added, “You know that, right?”

A little chill zipped up my spine. In that moment I noticed that I was talking to a man who was larger and stronger than I was. I then noticed that this man had a dog named after a beer that was also larger and stronger than I was.

“Sure,” I replied. My words made me sound as weak as I felt, so I cleared my throat and kept talking. “Sure,” I repeated. My voice still wavered a little, but at least it was louder. “Of course I know that. That’s why I’m here.”

He studied me for a long, excruciating moment. He nodded.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

When I was alone in the trailer, I had all but settled on those softball bomb things, but now, with my heart hammering in my chest, I said the first firework that sprang to mind.

“Bricks.”

For those not in the know, bricks are a set of tiny firecrackers with interlaced fuses. When lit, the firecrackers explode in a machine gun series of rat-a-rat-tats. By fireworks standards they are probably the wussiest things you can ever possibly buy. They’re not even as dangerous as sparklers.

Intimidating, no?
Intimidating, no?

To his credit, the man didn’t flinch. A sale was a sale I suppose. “Black Cat?” he asked.

“Black Cat?” I repeated. I didn’t know what Black Cat meant.

“Black Cat’s the best.”

It dawned on me that Black Cat was the manufacturer. “OK.” I said, starting to recover from our earlier conversation. The angry storm seemed to have passed.

“Large or small?”

“What does the large look like?” I asked. He pulled out a package of bricks the size of a queen mattress.

“Small, I think.”

The small was the size of a twin mattress.

He took my money and stuffed it into a cash box.

As he stared down into the wad of money inside, I saw his jaw clench.

Once. Twice. Three times.

Still staring at the box’s contents, he shook his head — slowly at first, but, then, with greater and greater intensity.

He was revving himself up. I was faced with the realization that the storm hadn’t passed at all; I had just been standing in the eerie calm of the eye.

“Um. I really like you car!” I said.

He flicked my comment away. “Freedom is our most valuable resource and they’re taking it from us. All of us! You know that, right?”

“Uh. Sure.”

“Janet Reno is the one doing it. She’s a Communist. Now, me? I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?”

“Yes,” I said.

Bud began to take cues from his owner’s mood. The dog’s stare seemed more intense than ever.

“Well, Reno’s no Christian! Christians don’t rob people of their freedom!

“No,” I said. My eyes flickered to the shelves behind the counter. I didn’t notice before, but hanging above the fireworks shelves, a shotgun was on display.

Sweet Jesus.

Then, like the merchandise he sold, the man exploded. I was assailed by a ferocious life philosophy. His hatred of Janet Reno segued into his hatred of President Clinton, which led to the IRS, which led to The Bankers, which led to how he refuses to get a license or insurance for that car I liked so much because no one had any damn business meddling in his affairs.

But the cornerstone of his sermon, the apex of his rage was reserved for the Phony Wars America had fought in the past – and the Real War that we’d all have to fight in the future.

Because that Real War was coming.

It was coming soon and no one was gonna be able to sit it out.

Everybody was going to have to take a side.

I didn’t understand much of what the guy was talking about. This was months before the Oklahoma City bombing; the militia man philosophy was not yet on anyone’s radar. What I did understand was that I had blindly wandered into something ominous. Something far worse than blowing off a pinkie.

My brain took stock of the situation:

You are more than a thousand miles from home.

You are in the middle of a desert.

There is no one for miles around.

No one knows where you are.

And where are you? my brain asked, rhetorically. You are in a trailer. With an angry, crazy man. A muscular German shepherd. A shotgun. And about four tons of explosives.

Take my advice, my brain said. Whatever this man says, you agree.

I don’t know how long he spoke, but it seemed interminable. I don’t remember him winding down, either; one moment he was raving, jabbing his finger and waving his fists, the next moment the trailer was silent.

He stared at me, seething.

He handed me my wussy brick purchase. I took it, but couldn’t move — not with him staring like that. I could see that there was far too much unspent rage still inside him to do anything rash — like leave.

So I cleared my throat. Then I spoke.

“I never thought of it that way before,” I heard myself say. “You are absolutely right.”

His eyebrows furrowed for a moment, but then I caught one corner of his mouth flicker. Was it the beginning of a smile?

Keep going, my brain said.

“Thank you.” I went on. I held out my hand. He stared at it a moment, then took it and shook it with bone-crunching firmness. He was a missionary; I was his convert.

“What’s you’re name?” I asked.

His charming smile returned. “Name’s Luke.”

“I’m glad I met you, Luke. Very glad.”

I took my bricks and strode with great purpose through the trailer door.

“Glad I met you, too!” Luke called after me.

I hopped into my car and turned the key. Luke followed me outside.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“My name’s Bob,” I said. I then slammed my gas pedal to the floor and left Luke behind in a cloud of dust.

Family and/or Autobiography

Salt Solution

UtahI awoke with stinging eyes, a pounding headache, and a whiff of stale smoke burning in my nostrils. It was all the effects of a hangover with none of the boozy fun of the night before.

Boozy fun didn’t happen in a Salt Lake City Holiday Inn — especially this one. The only vacancy was a smoking room with a lumpy king-size mattress that groaned every time I rolled over. It groaned often. I groaned, too, as I searched in vain for a comfortable sleeping position.

But it wasn’t all bad. I had reached my goal. I had made it to Utah. That was something, wasn’t it?

I was in my mid-twenties. College was over. I was living with my parents. I had no girlfriend or any prospect of finding one. Most of my friends had moved away. The only reason I had to get out of bed in the morning was my job at a bed and breakfast trade magazine situated out of a suite of dingy offices in South Orange. I didn’t like the work, but it was all I had.

Then I got laid off. In one fell swoop, I had lost what was left of my identity.

I still had money, though — and I didn’t want to spend what little cash I had left living my boring life in the same boring way. I wanted to spend it on something else – on gas and motels and heavy meals like fried steaks slathered in thick, speckled gravy the consistency of joint compound.

I wanted to see things. I wanted to travel.

“Where are you going?” my friend, Bill, asked through masticated bites of cheeseburger. Like me, Bill still lived at home. Unlike me, he had a job, a girlfriend, and an exit strategy out of his parents’ basement.

I didn’t have an answer. A destination had never occurred to me, so I said the first silly location that sprang to mind.

“Utah.”

“Ah!” Bill nodded. “You could use a couple of wives.”

We chuckled as we slurped our diner coffee, wordlessly mocking a place neither one of us had ever been.

In that very moment, however, a less cynical part of my personality took over.

Well, why not?, I thought. Maybe I would find my future wife on this trip. Maybe I’d stumble into a job – a good one that paid well. Maybe I’d find a little town so perfect that I’d never want to leave. Maybe the hours of quiet contemplation behind the wheel of my Plymouth Duster would help me make sense of my life. Who knew what was out there a thousand miles west of New Jersey? Anything could be out there. Maybe it was wonderful. Maybe it was waiting for me.

My stomach trembled with giddiness. For the first time in a year or more I fell in love with possibility.

I began my journey on a crisp, March morning with a bulging wallet, two bulging suitcases and little fanfare.

I first drove to Baltimore to meet up with an old friend. But our relationship wasn’t the same as I had remembered it.

Then I drove to Pittsburgh – where I went to college – to see if I could recapture something from that point in my life. I couldn’t.

Then I drove to places unknown. Ohio. Indiana. Iowa. Illinois. Nebraska.

I met a few people along the way, but not really. I didn’t want to meet people, so I mostly kept to myself. Part of me knew that I was sabotaging the entire point of my trip – the desire to find something to turn my life around – but I stayed the course. I drove a few hours. I set up in a motel. I watched Dragnet on Nick at Nite. Then I repeated the process, day after day after day, until Wyoming bled into Utah.

Because Utah was my destination, I had convinced myself that the answer to my problems would be found there. But all I could see was a vanilla town filled with fit, chipper people. When you’re depressed, the last place you want to be is in a town filled with fit, chipper people.

That night, in my stinky motel room, I counted what was left of my cash. More than half of it was gone. Logic told me that I had to head for home right away if I didn’t want to get stranded.

But I resisted. Everything was still unresolved. Everything was so very much the same as it was before that I couldn’t bring myself to turn around.

So the next morning I skipped breakfast and drove further west.

Shortly after Salt Lake City disappeared in my rear view mirror, I came upon the Great Salt Flats. The idea of such a lonely place so near a city startled me. I had driven across many desolate patches on my journey, but nothing quite like this. Before I knew what I was doing, I pulled over to the shoulder.

I got out of the car. The wind slapped me in the face as my sneakers crunched against the gray silt. The land was flat and featureless in every direction. I imagined Purgatory to be like this.

“My life in a nutshell,” I announced into a gust of wind. “Nothing worthwhile in any direction.”

But as I took it all in, I reconsidered my assessment.

If I continued west long enough, I’d hit San Francisco.

If I turned around, I’d be back in Salt Lake City and on my way home.

And who knew what I’d find if I went north or south? Something else besides this, surely.

There was something worthwhile in every direction, I just couldn’t see it yet. Like Purgatory, this situation was temporary.

Maybe this was my life in a nutshell. Maybe Utah did have something to tell me.

I let the wind smack me around for a minute or two more before I slid back into the driver’s seat. With a lighter heart, I pointed my car toward home and looked forward to what might appear on the horizon.