Photo -1971 Heidelberg Germany Mustafa at 16
Graduating from an American High School in Heidelberg Germany in 1973, my family spent that summer travelling and camping in a Volkswagon camper around the Mediterranean coast of Spain and France, where I learned how my dad would pass vehicles in his loaded up Volkswagen camper driving mountain roads. He would make a long sweeping increase in speed and then just as he got behind the car in front, he would pull out and pass. Sometimes he would pull out and then pull straight back in. Sometimes he would change his mind half way through the pass and hit the breaks and then get back in line. It worked well but scared the shit out of my mom. When it was time to leave, they put me on a plane in Lisbon to NYC. I had a Gibson SG guitar, a parcel of records and one suitcase. It was that brown solid samsonite with solid handle from the 50s. After sleeping the night in Kennedy airport with straps tying m belongings to my body, I then got on a bus to Ithaca, New York where I went to Cornell on a tuition scholarship.
I was self sufficient at 18 but not coming from money meant that I washed dishes through college and was frugal. Part of frugal meant not owning a car so my preferred method of transportation was hitchhiking. Although it was clear that its heydays were past I could still successfully get myself from one place to the other with my thumb. Only a few times was I concerned about being abused, generally my main concern was the driving capability of the driver. Sometimes they just didnt look like they paid attention. One notable exception was when I had hitched a ride down highway CA1 along the california coast out of Big Sur and I noticed the guy that picked me up had what looked like a model 1911 colt next to his seat and he made movements which suggested he was either thinking of accessing it or just wanted me to see it. Then I noticed as I looked over, his zip was down and his limp dick was hanging out of his pants. Reminded me of the song “this is my pistol this is my gun, this is for killing and this is for fun” Anyway, I started to make plans. I decided that if he reached for that pistol that I would strike him in the throat and try to get at it, the pistol that is, before he did, understanding that we may end up going over the seawall down a long way to the rocks below. He was a little weird to talk to but nothing ever happened, except every once in awhile he would adjust down there. I suppose maybe the zipper could get uncomfortable. There were one or two just as disconcerting episodes but with the number of miles I have hitchhiked I claim the rate of such events was quite low, certainly it never changed my habits. Indeed, for the most part, my experiences were good and I had many, and I mean very many, extremely rewarding experiences. I got to meet people of many different shapes and forms and have travelled all over the US- on almost nothing.
At the onset of Christmas break at Cornell a snow storm came in and i was stranded in my dorm room, absolutely alone for 2 days contemplating my 1.4 average and its possible effect on my scholarship. No alcohol, no weed, and can you say “Here’s Johnny!”. On the third day my buddy showed up in his yellow 65 Ford Falcon and said, want to come to Tully for Christmas? Tully, south of Syracuse, has the distinction of being in a Twilight Zone episode and being the home of my lacrosse buddy. He picked up his pot plant from his room and we hopped in his car and drove on a beautiful sunfilled snow covered highway to Tully when we got pulled over by a policemen. I watched carefully as he rounded car, I opened up the door a crack and slide the pot plant from between my legs outside the car. When the cop approached he said “ Are you *********? From Tully?” By buddy smiled and answered in the affirmative and then the cop said. I heard you were playin ball for Cornell. How is that going? This went on for a little bit, and then we said our goodbyes and the cop went back to his car. But he didnt move, so we got nervous and drove off leaving a 3 foot tall pot plant standing on the side of a New York highway. It was a funny lonely sight in our rearview mirror.
After spending Christmas evening in a bar, Christmas morning I put my thumb out and set out for the Fort Dix base where I could catch a standby flight (free for army brats) home to Germany. Somewhere in Pennsylvania on a cold cold night I was picked up by a Vietnamese woman who dropped me off at the Fort Dix base where i spent 5 days waiting for a ride on a C125. It was so cold I think she saved my life. I thought it was a little funny that 4 years earlier my dad was killing Vietnamese but she was very nice and also gave me a snack. When I finally got on that big plane I sat behind some artillary pieces among two little rows of wooden chairs filled with army brats.
My grades did improve but only during my junior year, so although I got accepted to graduate school in 1977 at The University of Arizona, it covered tuition only. So I worked and saved as much as I could until I was to leave New York and hitchike to my new life in Arizona. Since I had very little money, for the first two months I slept in the desert and hitchiked into school every day. I was a pretty stinky student I suppose. After two months a professor offered me a fellowship so I bought a little 350 honda motorcycle and rented a room in a house way out east of Tucson in the desert. I had a room, a little pink desk, a mattress and plenty of scorpions, spiders, and snakes. I was in heaven.
Soon I added Steinbeck, Hemmingay, Woodie Guthrie, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson,, among many others, to Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead of my music and reading. The Dead were coming to Tempe, near Phoenix, so a friend of mine borrowed his girlfriend’s car to drive us up. We stopped at a gas station, purchased two quarts of oil and topped off the oil as we were strongly instructed to do. With our backpacks and a full tank and crankcase, we lit up a joint and hit the road. The hot arizona breeze blowing in our faces, young and free math nerds, we were indeed living the dream -until the car started acting up after about 50 miles. We looked down to see the oil warniing light on and we pulled over. It did not look or smell good and wouldnt start so we decided to send me hitchhiking to the nearest gas station for some oil. We pooled our meager resources and came up with enough to do so and I stuck out my thumb. Soon enough an Arizona State Trooper pulled over and said “you boys know its illegal to hitchhike? I said no, and asked him how long is the walk to the next gas station. He laughed and said for me to get in. Now, this policemen was big, I mean really big, say a 250-300 lb 6’5” black man, a little overweight but not fat, certainly very strong. And of course, remember I was already high, and a 21 year old tall blond blue eyed devil. We got along great. We chatted about this and that and he took me to the gas station, I purchased my oil and to my surprise he waited for me and gave me a ride back to the car. On the way there (I swear to God, cross my heart and hope to die) he pulled over in the median, handed me the speed gun, and asked me if anyone was speeding. I said,”Nope, theyre all less than 70” . He told me that the speed limit was 60 and I nervously told him “Oh, I wasnt driving” He laughed and I ran the speedgun and we chatted for a while and then he drove me to the car. After filling the oil, the car still wouldnt start, so he up and drove us to the concert hall. This huge black state trooper personally delivering these two stoned raggedy white boys to a grateful dead concert. It was hysterical. It was also one of those experiences that have given me faith in humans, even big black arizona state trooper humans. It is one of many from by travels. Before we departed, I took a photo of my buddy leaning in the window with the cop pretending to write us a ticket, with big smiles on everyone’s faces. As usual, the concert was great, especially Stella Blue, I Know You Rider, Friend of the Devil and St. Stephen, and when it was done we hitchhiked home, getting a ride in the back of a pickup truck driven by some cowboys. I can still remember the way that cool desert air felt and smelled on that drive home. We did get in trouble for burning out the motor of my buddy’s girlfriends car though.
But this story is about hoppin freights. The hitching is just a sort of warm up.
Eventually I moved to graduate school in New York City in 1980. My stipend was 4000 per year and my rent was 200 per month for one bedroom in an extremely small, dirty, two bedroom apartment in Soho. I had a fire escape out my window and a Korean grocery store open all night below and my serious work hours were from 10pm to 4am. Then I slept till noon. Now I was really in heaven.
One day a fellow grad student, a racially Japanese, tall, long jet black haired, Portugese speaking Brazilian topologist named Washington told me that he would like to see America. I told him if that was the case then he should come with me and we could hop freights from the Bronx to LA. He asked if I knew how that worked and I admitted i didnt have a clue but back then I was fearless and figured I would just figure it out. Which is what we did. At this time I had this theory that my eating habits were primarily to feed nervous tension generated by my required mental tasks and so when breaks would come I would experiment with going without food. I always drank water but could easily go three days without food. So I head out to traverse the great American continent with $100 in my backpack. No cell phone, no credit card, just $100 and few changes of underwear, pants, t-shirts, a lightweight jacket, a few munchies and a bottle of water, and one morning we took the subway to the Bronx train station and stepped out onto the tracks.
Yes! Let the journey begin. I had worked at a US military trainyard in Germany in my youth, so I felt comfortable here and found a breakman and approached him and asked. “Can you tell me which one will take us towards LA?” You can imagine the look on his face. After he figured out we were serious he said there is a highball over there that’ll take you down the eastern seaboard and then you can catch something to Arkansas and Tennessee. He said, but mind you stay away from conductors and yard police. Generally breakmen will steer you well. I had chosen well. We went among the many tracks and trains and slithered over to the highball, jumped in an open box car and settled down for the wait.
And wait we did, something we learned we had to get used to for the whole trip. After 4 or 5 hours we heard some creeks and groans and bangs and eventually it started to move. I never timed it. But this process can take a very long time. This was a relatively long train, but later on we would find ourselves on some really long ones. We also learned we needed to carry alot of water. I quickly started travelling with a gallon jug.
The trip from the Bronx to LA took us 2 and half weeks. At the time we observed that we had serious adventures every single day and said that some day we should write about them. That was nearly 40 years ago and, although my memory is getting worse as I age, I know i can recount a few, for they are seared in my brain. I will save those for the next installment.