As we leave Nashville heading Southwest towards, Albuquerque, New Mexico, I think I have to make a sideways move in my narration to a few years earlier, long before this ride. The reason being that I don’t remember enough about this leg of the journey (no pun intended) for reasons that will become clear as you read. I was 24 years old when I left for California, however, about two years prior, I was working in a Kinney Shoes store in Warminster, PA.
The manager was a great guy by the name of Jules Augustine. I was one of two assistant managers; the other was Jim Pearson, a kid about my age. Jules was in his late 30’s, Jim and I were both about 21 or 22. Jules also moonlighted as a bouncer at the club next door where all the big local bands used to play. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was stocky and built solid, he also had premature gray salt and pepper hair and a goatee. He was a badass. Also an amazing salesman. He once bet me and Jim that he could sell an empty shoebox to the next person that walked through the door. He did, too!
The next person to walk through the door happened to be a single mom with a stroller, and Jules being the lady’s man he was… the three of us already knew right away he was going to win this bet. After selling her a pair of shoes and socks for her little boy, a pair for her, and a matching handbag, Jules proceeded to whip out an empty shoe box and extol the benefits of owning it. He gave her a laundry list of all the uses one could have for an extra empty box, and somehow, I don’t know how… she ended up buying the empty shoe box for a dime. Everything has an intrinsic value to somebody, I suppose.
After the woman left with her boy, the shoes, bag, now also a proud owner of an empty shoebox for only 10 cents more, the store was empty. It was late afternoon, no customers in site. No cars passing by for a while… Jules had been gloating, and one thing lead to another and for some reason – I cannot fathom for the life of me how, the three of us began wrestling. I mean like on TV. All three trying to pin each other in a crazy free-for-all-somebody’s-gonna-get-seriously-hurt kind of thing. What’s even more amazing is the fact that this particular Kinney’s was also the district office. Mr. Hickman, the district manager just happened to be out, and apparently his weird secretary didn’t hear any of the commotion. So we were out on the sales floor crying on like 5-year-olds for quite awhile. At one point, Jim was trying to pull me down to the floor with all his might and i was successfully resisting when Jules climbed up on a chair, balanced himself on the back of the chair and leaped form above and landed on top of me and Jim. That’s when something snapped. That would be my knee.
To make a long story a little shorter (but not by much) I ended up on the Orthopedic Floor of Albert Einstein Medical Center on Broad Street in Philadelphia. It was supposed to be a simple procedure. I had torn the lateral meniscus of my left knee, and the surgeon would simply remove it, and aspirate it (remove the water on the knee that caused it to swell with excruciating pain) and I would be released within five days where I could recuperate at home and be back to work in a relatively short time. Well you know what they say. “Man Plans and God Laughs!” So what happened was this…
Oh, before I get into “the incident”, I should tell you about my roommate, Billy. Billy was a junkie who lived in the area near the hospital, Yeah, even today, Albert Einstein is still there and the surrounding area is still pretty run down. Billy was so high on whatever he was shooting into his veins, he stepped in front of a bus and it broke both of his legs in 7 places. Suddenly, this thing with my knee didn’t seem so bad. Every evening, his friends would come up and enclose themselves in secrecy behind the curtain and, well I could pretty much guess what they were doing. I’m glad they didn’t invite me, because they made me seriously nervous. At any rate, I think the hospital knew what was going on because on the 3rd day of my stay, he was moved to another room. Probably a rehab.
I had brought my guitar to the hospital with me, and a two days after my knee surgery, I was sitting up and playing now that I had the room to myself. One of the nurses voices came over the intercom and said, We’re lisssteninnng”
Seems they were enjoying the concert. This was long before I had a clue I’d be on my way to California to become a famous rock star.
Spinal Tap Charlie
They didn’t leave me in that room alone too long, because later that day, in rolled Charles. Charles was a very nice middle-aged black man who was admitted because of back problems. He was scheduled to have a spinal tap the next day to determine the cause. His wife sat with him all afternoon and eventually left to let him rest. We talked for a while and I remember him being really good natured and I was so grateful to have him for a roommate after all the weirdness of that guy Billie and all his junkie friends. Too bad I was leaving the next day, I was getting used to being in a hospital bed, and Charles was good company. Then later, toward dinner time, his girlfriend came to visit. After she left that night, Charles explained that his wife and his girlfriend knew about each other. That’s why his wife left early. Wow. And I thought General Hospital was a soap opera. It didn’t compare to the crazy goings on at Einstein Medical Center. And things were about to get even crazier!
There was this male nurse named Matthew who insisted on giving me a back massage and a sponge bath to prevent bed rash. Of course, I didn’t really give any thought as to whether he may have been gay or not (back then, my mind just never went there). All I know is Matthew was a seriously funny dude and a major instigator. While he was rubbing the medicated lotion onto my back, there erupted this very loud commotion across the hall. You could here the F word being thrown around quite loudly and this was going on for a while and it seemed as if everyone was afraid to say anything to this bickering family before it escalated into a shooting or something inside the hospital. So dumbass ME, fresh out of surgery… I get it in my head to but on my pajamas, and hobble over there on my crutches and tell them to shut up. And I tell Matthew my plan and he being the instigator that he is, say, you go tell ‘em Hal. And Charles and his girlfriend are saying, “You go Hal!” So what does Hal do? He puts on those PJ’s, gets up on those crutches, and bless across the hall to give ‘em hell. I mean, come on. Who’s gonna mess with a cripple?
So I get to the room, stick my head in the door and scream, “You guys need to shut the f*#%! up!!!!!” Then, I slammed their door shut and went hobbling back to my room as fast as I could on my crutches, which i almost wiped out on due to my inexperience with them. But not before my mind filtered and played back what it was actually I had actually seen going on in that room. It wasn’t a fight brewing between gang members or any thing even close to a dangerous situation brewing. It was a family visiting their dad. There was an Eagles game on and they were all screaming at the television. Nobody came out to chase me. In fact they were much quieter after that. I guess they thought I’d come back swinging my crutches at them. After what happened next, there was no chance of that happening.
I got back to my room and quickly shut the door behind me; hopped back in bed and started to take my pajamas off. Except I forgot one thing. There was no cast on my leg. No splint. Nothin’. I raised my leg and then – it just – bent. That little stunt cost me thirty more days in bed before I could put any weight on that leg again. At least a whole month longer on those crutches. To this day, every time I’m in a bar and there’s football game on TV, I wince, just thinking about that day.
The next morning, they took Charlie out on the gurney for his spinal tap. Now before you get a spinal tap, they give you specific instructions not to sit up for a certain amount of hours. The procedure itself is very painful and consists of injecting a big, fat, long, syringe into your spine to withdraw fluid which they send to the lab for analysis. So just know, this is some serious testing and one of the most painful things a person can endure. especially if you try to get up right after it’s been done. So I just happened to be looking in Charlie’s direction as he regained consciousness and I guess out of habit, started to sit up. BANG! He fell right back down with a cry of agony as if someone hit him in the head with an anvil. It was hard to watch. It was also hard not to laugh, because, well, it WAS kind of comical after everything else that had happened the night before. Later, when Charlie was able to sit up again and both of our painkillers had kicked in, we shared a laugh over the entire last two days.
That weekend, I was released from the hospital and allowed to recuperate at home. The doctors scheduled physical therapy sessions at the house and by the end of the month, I was finally able to walk again. I don’t remember exactly how long I had to use the crutches.
You should know that until the time of this accident, I had been a casual pot smoker. Pretty much everyone was doing it back then and it was more uncommon among my peers not to have at least tried it. I was reluctant to try it myself, so i became a pot smoker for a relatively short period of time. I bring this up now because it was after this episode with my knee when I lost my tolerance for marijuana. I don’t know if it was the painkillers I was taking during recovery or what, but I just couldn’t handle it any more after I got home from the hospital. Where once it made me laugh and relax, one toke would now make me want to immediately go to sleep. The reason i’m bringing this up is because when Brian and I arrived in New Mexico, his friends there invited me to crash at their house and party with them before leaving on my own the next day when I’d be heading to California alone. And this is why I took a detour back in time to give you a little taste of my life before I left for the Left Coast. You see, I smoked some weed fro the first time in a long time, so I remember very little about New Mexico. Like I said, one hot off a joint, and I pretty much just curl up and pass out. Which I did.
The next day, we all slept late, and I do remember having a good breakfast before I left and I noticed this big camel-like hump outside the window. That’s Camelback Mountain they told me. Aptly named. to be sure. I shook hands with Brian and his buddies and bade them goodbye. Got on the road again, this time just me in my big old Mercury cruising out of Albuquerque, watching Camelback fade into the background in my rearview.