The highway side
I took a nap with the balcony doors open. When I woke, it was dark. Out on the pier, the Ferris wheel was moving, and there was another ride next to it, both decked out with fancy carnival lights. I could almost hear the laughter, smell the popcorn and the cotton candy.
I ordered a sandwich and a beer from room service. The waiter said there was a souvenir shop on Santa Monica Boulevard two blocks down.
I crossed Ocean Avenue and took the long way down. There was a strip of parkland at the edge of the bluff. It wasn't much wider than my hotel room, and the grass was spotted with dark shapes, homeless guys sleeping. Homeless guys and their mounds of belongings.
I picked my way carefully among them and made my way to a fence that looked down on the coast highway. Is this where they came when they ran out of country? Then what? Did the police let them live here? Or did the cops eventually turn them around and send them back the other way?
Did Billy Miller ever come here? Did he stick a toe in the ocean? He must have. A kid who was planning to write a book about bumming around the country wouldn't miss the Pacific.
"Bum." Remember when you could say that without sounding like a bigot? Remember "winos" and "hoboes," "vagrants" and "tramps"? I wondered whether any of these sleeping guys ever took the footbridge over the highway and walked down to the water? It looked like the best place around for a bath.
A man was sitting on the sidewalk outside the souvenir shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. He would have fit in fine back in Illinois. Even with the nice weather, he was wearing tons of clothes, probably everything he owned. His hood was up and he was rocking back and forth in that half-curled position--that I'm-really-somewhere-else rock. He had a big plastic bag at his side and he was playing with something, a pack of cigarettes or a deck of cards.
As I approached, he lit a cigarette. "Help an ugly man survive," he said, without looking up.
"Join the club, brother," I said, handing him a buck. He looked up, took it, said "Thank you, sir," and went back to his rock.
"We're closing in five minutes," the clerk at the souvenir shop said as I walked in the door.
I wandered around for a minute and found a whole section on Route 66: posters, photographs, replica road signs, ceramic gasoline pumps, coffee cups, plates, salt and pepper shakers, creamers--you name it, they had it, all with the U.S. 66 insignia.
"This isn't Route 66?" I said.
"That's the end of the road, right out the door," the clerk said.
"Yeah. I gave him a buck," I said.
"If you're really interested, there's a plaque on the other side of Ocean Avenue."
I could buy Route 66 memorabilia in Illinois, I decided. I wanted something with a true California twist. And just then, I figured out the perfect gift for Maddy Miller.
The plaque was right where the clerk said it would be.
WILL ROGERS HIGHWAY
TO WILL ROGERS
HUMORIST, WORLD TRAVELER,
THIS MAIN STREET OF AMERICA
WAS THE FIRST ROAD HE TRAVELED
IN A CAREER THAT LED HIM
STRAIGHT TO THE HEARTS
OF HIS COUNTRYMEN.
I'd forgotten that Rogers had fled the Dust Bowl, and Route 66 had been the main route out, "the Mother Road." But who remembered the Oakies anymore? The only Will Rogers line I could recall was: "I never met a man I didn't like.
"Man is the key word," I said.
I thought again of Billy Miller. He'd grown up so close to the old highway. Did he lay awake in the middle of the night and listen to that faraway highway sound, dreaming of all the places he'd go someday? He must have come here, to the very end of the road.
There were more dark shapes sleeping in crevices off the stairway that led down from the bluff. I followed the footbridge across the coast highway and went down to a big parking lot.
I trudged through the sand, took off my shoes and socks, and rolled up my pants. I walked out a bit and waited for the tide. The water was cold, much too cold for swimming. But somebody was in the water, way down by the pier with the Ferris wheel, which was now motionless and dark.
A couple strolled up from the other direction, kids in their late teens. The girl was walking with her shoes in hand. They passed behind me. "Hey, don't get the water dirty," the guy said to my back. I realized he thought I was one of the pack from the bluff.
I went back to my room and grabbed a couple of miniature bottles and got in the car. Before long I was freeway flying on Interstate 10, the radio keeping time.
Lonnie the lumper had almost finished his chocolate sundae when I arrived.
"I was hoping you'd be here," I said, sliding a big plastic Route 66 coffee mug to his side of the table.
"I'll trade you for that Quick Pumper one."
"You're some funny detective, you know that?"
"Takes all kinds, right?"
We both had coffee, and then walked out to Lonnie's pick-up truck to make the trade.
A few minutes later I was back on the highway, twirling the coffee cup in my hand. "Your fast friend on Interstate 10," I read the logo under the speeding truck. Didn't that sound like a line from some old road song?
NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER TWENTY