19 in Nashville
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Confusion in Youth is Nothing New
I was 19 when some kind soul pulled off I-40 long enough to drop me off in Nashville. It was not my intention to stay there, but I figured I might as well see it as my hitchhiking had no particular goal or agenda.
I had started in Providence only about a week earlier. I was not finding hitchhiking to be very much fun. Twice I had slept at the homes of people who had given me a ride. The night before I had stayed at a nice middle-class house in Lebanon, and the father of the young man who picked me up had even offered me a job at his shoe factory. Most nights I had slept by the freeway.
This was in September, 1974. It was just after the First Oil Shock, it was a recession, and lots of people were unemployed. Factories were already moving overseas, long before NAFTA. The jewelry factory I had worked in for the summer would soon be moved to some low-wage Caribbean island. Yes, lucky me, I was entering the adult world just in time for the end of the post-World War II economic boom.
I was not used to committing crime, or getting on welfare, or begging, and I was not broke. I figured to look around a bit and then get back on the road. I must have bought a paper map at a gas station because the street I was on, Broadway, led to downtown in one direction and to Vanderbilt University and some parks in the other. I headed towards the college.
I walked by a building that advertised rooms by the day, week, and month. Really cheap, even by the standards of those days.
Which brings me to an important point: in many ways I had a very sheltered upbringing. My parents were by-the-book conservatives who believed in making their children toe the line. I had smoked marijuana, but that was in college, not with poor people. I had been in fights, but not with someone who was trying to steal the money in your pockets. I was not a virgin, but my only girlfriend had been from a family considerably richer than mine.
And though I had just, in effect, run away from college, there was something soothing and familiar about the district around Vanderbilt. Whatever energy had possessed me to head out on a hitchhiking adventure had drained away. On the way back to the freeway, getting towards evening, I came upon what I will call the Roach Motel again. A sign said there was a vacancy.
I skinny woman who seemed mature to me, but who was probably 30-ish, took a few dollars from me and gave me the key to a room. It had a bed and a sink, but the toilets and shower were down the hall. I worried a bit about bed bugs, which I had heard of but never experienced. I left my backpack packed, probably took a shower, and went to bed.
In the middle of the night I sensed something was wrong. I turned on the light. Roaches! I mean a lot of roaches, and some had crawled up on the bed. The lights sent the bugs, in a languid southern gentle fashion, back into the cracks and crevices. After they dispersed I decided to sleep with the light on.
The next day I could not face the idea of hitchhiking. The room did not seem so bad during the day. Instead of checking out I paid Ginger or whatever her name was for a full week's stay. She indicated that if I wanted to have sex with her all I had to do was pay a fee.
During the next week I learned the small community of Roach Motel was quite diverse. There were some very old people there, trying to live of Social Security. There were prostitutes and there were small time drug addicts/dealers. The odd room was filled by drifters like me.
Back then, before personal computers and cell phones, if you wanted a job, and had no friends to help you to one, you had your newspaper help wanted classifieds, your government employment office, and approaching businesses in their physical locations. I bought the local paper and began comparing ads to physical locations. And I started walking. I saw a sign in a window of Caesar's Pizza, near the U., and applied there. I applied for maybe 15 positions in the course of the day.
It shows you how marginally employable so many people are that during a recession, when tons of people were looking for work, that the next day I was offered not one buy two jobs by people who did not no me from Adam. One was a night job, 3 nights a week, as a cook's helper at Caesar's Pizza. The other was a job as an assistant mechanic, in a small machine shop in the back of a warehouse. Both jobs paid minimum wage.
By the time my week at Roach Motel was up I had rented a room with a separate entrance at the back of a house rented to students near the U.
Soon I was rich. My parents had never given me an allowance, and at university money had been so tight I had been reduced to rags and lived on pasta a rice. My pay checks amounted to far more than I paid in rent. I did not worry about healthcare, I had no drug habit, I did not fancy clothes, and I was a vegetarian on a simple diet.
I also had a lot of free time. This may seem strange, given that I was working 60 hours a week. But I was used to working and studying round-the-clock. Now I could get enough sleep, socialize, do this and that, and still have time to spare.
I did buy an electric typewriter. I was going to be a writer. Probably a science fiction writer like Frank Herbert, or a novelist like Steinbeck, or a humorist like Mark Twain, but I was sure I could do it.
Well, you know how well that worked out. Not well at all.
This blog is an example: I was going to write about how dazed and confused I was as a young man. So that I am not surprised when young people make poor decisions. Instead I made it sound simple to get your life going in a city where no one knows you. Not the case, not at all. The jobs sucked, for instance. So I'll have to retry this topic later.
But I will tell you this: the week I was at Roach Hotel a fire inspector came by. To pick up a payoff to not condemn the building. Before I left Nashville the place burned down. I think I heard some people died in the fire, but I have not fact checked my memory against newspaper accounts.
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