A Day in the Country

It's not always easy to tell the artists from the homeless winos, even if the artists wear designer rags and keep credit cards and expense accounts and live in the sweet art lofts on Washington Boulevard. Actually the winos and artists have more in common than you might imagine, more in common, that is, than bad livers, long greasy hair, eccentric behavior and crazy daydreams. Ultimately you discover who the creative types are when their mommies and daddies cut the cord and they have no choice but to crop their hair and put on a gray suit and walk the two or three blocks over to the business district and get a job in graphic design.

That wasn't going to happen to me.

I was free as the bird, the prairie chicken, and the turkey buzzard. I could do anything I wanted--as long as it didn't involve money.

When I left my hotel room that morning I hadn't eaten in nearly a week and none of my jeans fit me. My clothes were essentially worthless, except as window dressing for my bones. The truth was I was so weak I could barely make it down to the soup kitchen before collapsing on the sidewalk like an old Woolworth's building.

I'd been up the night before finishing my latest masterpiece--a sequel to my epic haiku "Folderol"--so it was early, around seven o'clock when I strode through the doors of the Food Not Bombs Soup Kitchen in a kind of half-starved dreamlike haze. The place was already filling up with the usual crowd of breakfast bums. All morning I'd been having these wet dreams of fluffy scrambled eggs and strong black coffee and hash browns and long strips of greasy bacon and maybe some thick slabs of ham, so you can imagine my disappointment when I get in line and all they are dishing out are great glops of sticky flavorless oatmeal. I waited till it was my turn and I turned to Karyn, one of the volunteer daughters of privilege, and said, 'What's the big idea? I'll bet you didn't have this crap for breakfast. I'll bet you had fluffy eggs and thick slabs of ham.'

'As a matter of fact, I did have oatmeal,' she said smiling sweetly. 'I have oatmeal every morning. It's an excellent source of dietary fiber and keeps me regular.'

Disgusting. Like I need that much information?

I couldn't choke down the oatmeal, no matter how starved or irregular I was, so I sat down and drank some of the watery coffee and smelled the bums awhile, then Karyn and her husband Jake and her brother Todd and Todd's partner I-don't-know-what-her-name-is, came up to the table and asked if we'd be interested in taking a trip to the country.

'There'll be a weenie roast and a hayride and a bonfire and a hootenany. Who'd like to go?' she said.

The bums remained silent.

'Oh, come on. It'll be fun,' cried Karyn. 'How often do you get to spend a day in the country? A little fresh air will do you good!'

Her little sales pitch was falling on dirty and deaf ears, so she started playing up the lunch menu. My stomach started rumbling so loud it sounded like a construction site.

'What do you say?' said Karyn brightening. 'We've got room for three more.'

Perhaps I was driven mad by hunger, or maybe I'd been cooped up in that shabby hotel room too long, but I got up and shoved my hands in my Army jacket pockets and stepped outside into the cold gray November morning.

Outside two vans waited. I climbed into the first one, but the guys in there were a little too rank for me, so I tried the second.

It wasn't much better.

Karyn's husband Jake was the driver. He didn't look too happy about it either. He had his window rolled down and his head stuck half-way out gasping for fresh air. Karyn made him roll up the window because it was freezing outside.

I recognized one of the other guys in the van, a big bearded black loony tune who wore a big sock cap over his long dirty dreadlocks. You'd often see him wandering around downtown muttering to his self and carrying a pile of old newspapers and a filthy sleeping bag, rooting around in the garbage cans for cheeseburger and soda cup remnants. The three other guys in the van looked like they'd barely survived the Viet Nam War, and had yet to get over it.

Jake turned on the radio and for a while we listened to a sports talk show. Then Karyn made him turn it off--irritating Jake even more--so she could turn around and talk to us. She began asking us all kinds of personal questions--like where we were from, and whether we had any children. We basically ignored her and stared out the windows at the dead cornfields. All accept the crazy newspaper man who throughout the whole trip kept up a steady stream of gibberish, no matter how much we wished he'd shut the hell up.

The road eventually thinned from eight lanes to one. Around eleven o'clock we turned onto a dirt road and stopped before a small gray cottage in the woods. Behind the cottage was a slate-gray pond with a small tin rowboat tied to a dock, and next to the cottage a big pineywood barn.

As Karyn and daughters of privilege prepared to unload the picnic supplies from the van, the nine of us climbed out and wandered off toward the cottage seeking warmth and shelter.

'Sorry,' Karyn shouted after us, 'the cottage is off-limits today. Say, I've got a good idea! Why don't you help Todd collect some firewood for the bonfire?'

This was obviously Todd's first bonfire, because we were nearly frozen to death before Al and Dean stepped in and got it going; however, once they did we all flew to it like a cloud of shabby-winged moths. One old guy called Scratch kept asking about the wieners and kept on asking, getting more and more irritated until Karyn finally said, 'Jesus, all right already,' and she and Todd's partner broke out the wieners and we all grabbed a handful and began roasting them on sticks. The crazy newspaper guy didn't even bother to roast his. He just shoved them in his mouth raw. Then he strode over to the cooler and started loading up his coat pockets with sodas and packages of wieners and muttering to himself in some crazy foreign language, like a cross between Martian and Swahili.

When we'd eaten our fill of wieners we stood round the bonfire smoking cigarettes, and listening to Karyn and her husband yell at each other from inside the cottage. Apparently Jake was inside watching the football game and refused to come out and participate in our little picnic. The tiff was quickly drowned out by Todd and his partner who brought a guitar and autoharp from the van and sat on the picnic table and tried to get us to sing along to 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?' and 'Blowin' in the Wind.'

'Come on, you guys. I know you know the words,' Todd whined. But it was useless. It was too damn cold and besides nobody felt like singing those dumb ass songs. If they really wanted us to sing they should have made us sing before dinner like they do at the People's Ministry.

Suddenly the screen door slammed and Karyn stormed out all red in the face. 'Who wants to go on a hayride?' she yelled, unconvincingly upbeat.

'We do!' Todd and his partner sang.

Nobody else said anything.

Todd disappeared into the barn and five minutes later came out driving an old beat-up tractor with barely enough pull to haul the flatbed.

Karyn said, 'Okay, everyone, climb aboard for the hayride!'

It was around two o'clock and the woods were getting gloomier by the minute, and the cold was getting sharper. We moved a little closer to the fire.

'Come on, fellas,' Karyn said, going up to Scratch, cigarette dangling from his mouth like a deranged killer. 'It'll be fun. Scratch, when was the last time you went on a hayride?'

'I want to go home,' said Scratch.

'Me too,' said Al. 'I'm freezing my ass off here.'

'Go home? But the fun's just starting! You guys! Besides what's your hurry? What do you have to go back to?'

I think Karyn regretted saying that, because Todd gave her a sharp look that caused her whole face to flush.

That was when I noticed that the crazy newspaper guy had gone AWOL. I said, 'I think that crazy newspaper guy wandered off into the woods somewheres.'

'Oh, crap!' cried Karyn. 'Did any of you guys see which way he went?'

We shrugged. I couldn't see why Karyn was so upset. He'd probably adapt all right to country living. Sure there were no trashcans to dine from or overpasses to sleep under, but there were probably caves and mushrooms and berries, and all kinds of fish. He'd probably be much healthier and maybe less crazy on a diet like that.

'Okay, here's the deal,' Karyn said, trying to compose herself and her desperate thoughts. 'If you get on the wagon right now, all nine...eight of you, when the hayride's over we'll go straight home. I promise.' Then she turned to Todd, 'I'll look for the newspaper guy.'

We schlumped over to the wagon and climbed over one another to get into the bed. Before we could get seated the tractor took off with a jerk, sending Al and Scratch toppling off the back end and flat on their backs, and off we went down the gutted dirt road, huddled and shivering and shaking in the damp hay. The tractor turned onto a back road and bounced into a stubbly cornfield making one full circle, then headed back. Midway through the ride Todd's partner tried to force us to sing 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing,' till we politely told her to shut the hell up.

Back at the cottage, Karyn and the crazy newspaperman were waiting for us, he grinning and rocking and holding his armful of damp newspapers and she holding onto him like a prisoner of war. We climbed down from the wagon and made a beeline for the vans. Jake came out of the house carrying his portable TV and we all waited sneezing and farting in the vans while Karyn and Todd and his partner picked up the empty soda cans and put out the fire and locked the barn and congratulated each other on a positive, uplifting, feel-good experience.

It was nearly dusk when we pulled up at the soup kitchen. Inside the daughters of privilege were serving a thin chicken soup with oyster crackers to the same old crowd of starving loonies. I ate my soup in the corner alone, then, refreshed and burning with divine inspiration, I hurried back to my room, keeping between hawk and buzzard, shaking like an aspen leaf, jumping like a parched pea, and once again, free as the mourning dove.

About the author:

Chris Orlet is a columnist for Vocabula Review. His essays have appeared in Utne Reader, London Guardian and Salon.com