Tuckness

Who was Joe Tuck? He was; well, Joe Tuck,– they, the University, if they had been bent on exhibiting some new face of tolerance, in admitting him it could only have been tolerance for that specific quality of “Tuckness”, as he fit no other categories, reperesented no other demographic-.- Unlike the blacks and myself it seems it didn’t occur to him to either struggle with that fact, mentally, or to question his identity within the greater context. Bottom line, he was poor, and poor has its own politics. If they couldn’t take a joke then ‘f-” ‘em” as he would say. Tuck had come to Cornell in 1968 on a 100% scholarship. He was a wild, wiry Irishman with a curly, Colleen Dewhurst copper red “Jewfro” and a hook of a nose that implied some pending allergy, and a moist pallid complexion as if he had been hidden under a rock most of his life. Apparently his father had been dead for a while or disappeared or at least been hiding under a different rock than he and his mother for a very long time. He had been raised by his mother on Euclid Avenue, a working class neighborhood of Syracuse. In Syracuse, as in much of upstate New York, then, even still to this day, at least in certain areas, workingclass means; not working, but having all intentions of doing so. For him, Cornell was his ticket out of poverty. This was something he did not attempt to hide or dissimulate. He was also unfailingly proud of his background. And why should he not?! Maybe he was poor but he was a writer! Plus, he was at Cornell, he had got the golden ticket. ((Though, I have to say, in my experience writers are notoriously not ticket takers so what Joe (or I for that matter) was doing at Cornell I will never know.))

Of course,- when I say Tuck was a writer, I don’t mean that he ever actually wrote anything, it was just that, well, whatever it is in me that makes me want to write, to scribble this nonsense constantly, that thing was in him too,-and like me, when he kept it bottled up, it seeped out of his pores like Gatorade, in incongruous colors as if to paint in vague but bright blotches an ongoing Herculean inner struggle, this latter, this constant internal struggle, like his scholarship to Cornell was, like a used handkerchief something he was inclined at odd moments to accost you with, to rub it in your face, something that made him different, much as his unitized dust mote slef-propelling red “Jewfro”. He stood ever on the brink of nervous collapse, incipient sneer hiding behind the pallid bushes like a robber ready to ambush you, to grab you by the collar with his thin, pale, effeminate fingers as one might any stranger in a bar, not to rob, but to present a foregone conclusion, a means of finding, a small mercy in some human contact rather than as a means to cultivate, or, start an entire conversation, which would have been just besides the FACT. In other words, Joe was pretty bottled up,- but not in a way that improved over time, like a Cabernet, but then he would be the last to admit (or deny) it.

It didn’t seem like we had planned it. Joe sat there on the couch, shaking his red hair (which, as I have said seemed always to move as a well disciplined unit), disturbing the dust motes in the room in a choreographed stampede, tiny buffalo, silently bemoaning some inscrutable real or imagined wrong, some whofuckincares extinction from this century or the last (whofugincares), just as he always had, just as he always would, bewailing some wrong committed in the name of a mis-perceived irony, some sin directed against the indecent or the decent, –the New Wave, the old wave, the new age or the old wage.
“Want to go to Woodstock?” He said finally snorted, looking up fattening himself at the fact that I had been sitting there with my guitar in hand for the last hour with these pathetic attempts at originality.
“No money.” I replied finally putting my Guild D-50 down very gently, without any expression.
“We can hitchhike.”
“What about food?” I asked.
“Food,-hahh,-“ Joe snorted again, “you have to trust in the great provider, the Dharma, the way,– the dharma will give us food.” He intoned with his slightly nasal cajoling tone, his teeth slightly bared so I knew he meant it even though I didn’t know exactly what the hell he meant anyway but I knew it had something to do with Kerouac, or somethin’, ergo, serious.
“So,-?”
“OK, then.” But I went in and made a sandwich, in case the Dharma wasn’t accepting my Cornell meal card.
Woodstock, we knew by then already, was not going to be just another concert, it was to be some kind of a ritual. A new rite for the new age. The first 100% bull-shit-less event to christen a 100% bullshit-less generation. So, to be fair, when I said I had no money, I actually lied, I had a quarter, and by now ,a sandwich. But Joe had zippo. Less than zippo,– no bull, just the Dharma. Joe Tuck. Joe Tuck, dharma bum,– the Irishman always down on his luck.

“Let’s go, man.” I said, not really expecting much except for a long stint by the side of the road and then a consolation dinner of Aunt Jemima pancakes with granola at Annie P’s house with our heads now both hung low and shaking pseudo-inconsolably. I picked up my guitar case and we walked out onto East State Street and I stuck out my thumb.

Within seconds we were picked up by this manic, squat, kind of heavyset dude in a mauve “T” Shirt, with a Fu Manchu moustache driving a ‘56 Dodge dart, kind of hunched over the wheel with his eyes darting back and forth behind horn rimmed black glasses, nervously muttering to himself and smoking a corn cob pipe full of marijuana. It was as if he had been car service waiting for us. He looked like short, fat, Chinese Jeff Goldblum. “Where ya’ goin?” “Woodstock”. “Me too”. “What’s your name?”, “Larry, Larry from Buffalo”, “I’m Joe and he’s Ken”. “Want a toke?” “- later”. That was it,– it seemed so easy.

I had spent many hours hitch hiking before. I had hitchhiked with Hugh to Boston University earlier that year and in previous years to a lot of other festivals like the Newport Jazz festival on Rhode Island and the Folk festival. Hitchhiking was never fun. It sounds like it should be an adventure but usually when your feet aren’t aching, you’re usually stuck in the back seat of a barely streetlegal vehicle with someone else’s feet jammed against the side of your head. If you’re lucky their shoes are off and there socks are clean. Three dudes in a Dodge Dart with a working radio. That was paradise. Billy Herndon, you may recall, also had a Fu Manchu moustache, but then again he was the black detective, whatever that was, Yin and Yang, — I looked up at the blue and red Taoist symbol Arnold Savolainen had painted in acrylic on his window floating over Eddy and State and waved goodbye to Ithaca and all of that and breathed the breath of the road.

The trip down Route 17 was uneventful, almost frighteningly normal. Then at Binghamton we heard the disc jockeys talking about the events on the radio in their normal hyped up echo enhanced bantering tone. In that desolate section of highway between the Downsville or Fishes Eddy exit until you are close to Liberty, it is almost impossible to get good reception on the FM radio. Then suddenly things started moving so incredibly fast that by the time we got to exit 94, Roscoe, we were already out of the loop. When I turned the radio back on it was as if hippies had hijacked every radio station in the country and supplanted the DJs with people who (*from a strictly technical point of view) sounded remarkably normal and unenhanced, if a little excited. There was Arlo Guthrie, “they closed the New York State Thruway man! The New York State Thruway!” he was exulting in his incredulous nasal twang. “Whew,” I said with relief,” lucky we’re on 17 and not the thruway”. “Traffic is dead stopped on Route 17.” “At least we’re moving man. What do they know!” Somehow I didn’t sound very convincing, even to myself.

Then it seemed like the radio started carrying on a conversation with ‘Fu Man Larry -Chu” something along the lines of: Arlo, “Don’t you think you ought to stop for gas man?” (nasal twang) “Don’t need no gas.” Larry says back to the radio. “Oh, yeah” Arlo asks “and what does this car run on exactly, ‘good vibrations’?” And all without a trace of unintended irony. “Ethanol man. Renewable, clean fuel, from corn” says Larry waving the corn cob pipe to illustrate. “You know what you’ve got there son? –(Pause) An Internal Corn Bustin’ engine.” (Fade back to music) Says Arlo and that was it-it was back ridin’ ‘The City of New Orleans’. As we approached the exit for Monticello and White Lake which was also the exit for Bethel, Arlo was sill singin’ “‘N I don’t want a pickle,-just want to ride my motor-sssscyyyyy—–cle”,–we began to see one car then ten cars, pulled over on the side or parked on the meridian or wherever,-and people just milling around on what had been the normally barren patchy grass of the route 17 divider like it was Central Park or something. “This is far out, man!” Joe was looking around doing that kind of combination amused closed mouth laugh and snarl with increasing frequency, now like a caged animal. Traffic got to be a dead stop and Larry pulled the Dart over and said perfunctorily. “That’s it man.” “OK” I said and got out of the car. “Ya coming?” Joe asked Larry. “I’m just gonna sit here and groove on this scene here for a while.” Larry said pulling out his corn cob pipe from the ashtray. “OK, Whatever Man. Cool” and Joe hauled himself out after me and we set off on the seven mile hike towards theconcert site, with no idea what direction to walk, as it seemed the majority of people were just milling around aimlessly.

I was pretty sure it, the event, was West, in the direction of White Lake, but, which way was that?, follow the dharma man! The dharma just then consisted of hundreds of people kind of milling in a general direction away from the highway so we headed off that way too. As we walked along country lane after country lane it became evident that we were in fact headed the right way. The road began increasingly to resemble those black and white pictures of war refugees you see in magazines, but somehow almost reluctantly bursting from predominantly amber sepia hue into full well lit color, like the movie with William H. Macy, like an old photo, Pleasantville or Oz,-but everyone kind of in tatters, like a circus troop, a voiceless camraderies, all kind of trudging along in the same general direction and then with this Technicolor impasto irrational joy welling up occasionally, popping out also suddenly, unexpectedly. Some were lugging guitars as I was and some just stopped to do impromptu performances by the side of the road, without any explanation or fanfare, seemingly just from force of habit, as if they were performers, addicted to attention and couldn’t shake it. Others seemed like shell shocked campers, imposters caught in the same golden afternoon light, the old DMZ between day and night suddenly reversing itself, going to more light, not less, halfheartedly lugging their belongings, tents, canteens, (bottled water had yet to be invented), and instruments,–but then suddenly there were no imposters among us, or we were all imposters. As we left the backdrop of the blacktop behind, the atmosphere turned welcoming, like we were in some Renaissance festival with jugglers and clowns but Renaissance fares also had yet to be invented. We marched along like some great migration of refugees pushed ahead by the glacier of studied contempt of society for youth and things stubbornly young the terminal moraine deposited on those twisty Sullivan County roads ground to gravel, then dirt. For two hours we trudged, as the excitement grew and the light paradoxically still grew, even in the deepening shadows of evening proving more warm and honeying instead of cool and blue tinged as expected and it hugged us like long lost children and we didn’t say a word, or feel the need to, but, I wondered why l felt I was starting to get hungry. A lot of people had just stopped to picnic by roadside and I cast an envious glance in their direction. The image of Billy Herndon and his angry hipster Alice in Wonderland picnics flashed briefly in my mind. Many people had sat down to rest on the slight embankment alongside the road I realized that these were not exceptionally athletic people to begin with and if they had been in the circus they certainly were more likely to have been the clowns or the guys riding the elephants, not the trapeze artists, and certainly not the jugglers. As we trudged on, mile after mile, of those unending eight miles, eight thousand miles away, we knew, as we constantly knew somehow, boys our exact age were dying in tall elephant grass and rice paddies and snake infested swamps, but suddenly Vietnam and its horror seemed like it was locked behind the increasingly shredded canvas of dread, in another world, another time, –not this one, not this place, not this time, at least for now.

Without any apparent provocation, I suddenly drew up to a halt. I noticed there sitting on the side of the road just in front of me, sitting cross-legged against a tree, a thin olive skinned guy, kind of playing a guitar wearing brown sunglasses with a red and white do-rag, also clearly in his own perfect mikrokosmos. At this point the pastoral aspects had given way to a brimming excitement and it seemed the excitement was tangible enough that there was no reason not to believe that we were trapped in some kind of fairytale and that the laws of time and space were willing to be somewhat playful, if not suspended outright, at least relaxed provided of course the exact right question was asked, as they are wont to do in those stories. “Are you Jimi Hendrix?” I asked, hoping against hope that my quest was over, that we had walked far enough, that we were in fact-’at Woodstock’, that Woodstock consisted on a total of three people total and we could now go home or to the diner. “No man, I’m his twin brother, Roger Hendrix.” Joe kind of snorted and the guy laughed also realizing at that moment that he had inadvertently somehow condemned us to continue walking, but not in a malicious way. The guy was white. I should have guessed. Those were the only words I spoke to a soul for four hours as the light grew progressively more and welcoming and then weaned from the cares of the day directly into rainy black carpeted night.

As I stepped out from the cool marble hallway of TIAA-CREF into, the bright morning and onto Lexington Avenue, I saw something that I had never seen before. All the people on the street were walking in the same direction, –uptown. I already knew why. As I turned to look downtown, the grim reason was apparent in a gash of white smoke painted against the bright September sky,-beautiful and obscene. The other odd thing was that all the athletic women in their business suits, lugging their laptops heading uptown were wearing high heels, not sneakers. No time to change. Some thirty two years later, the Pleasantville bursting picnic of color had been permanently painted over again with gray cement and ash and it was not the normal surface filmy gray of Manhattan but a foreign, gritty, permeating gray. It was all very calm and almost seemed well organized, everyone stepping along at more or less the same pace, heads down, watching the sewer gratings with their high heels, just athletically, not in any panic, just heading uptown, like they might do on any ordinary day, watching the heels of the person in front of them, moving away from the destruction,– not toward anything, just away, away, like a line of healthy well tailored Dolce Gabbana refugees. If they were from the circus, these would have been the trapeze artists and jugglers. I remember stepping into the crosswalk at 47th street, hey, its just a street and people crossing the street, typical beat up New York asphalt , yellow lines, nothing special, frighteningly normal. But, –all going in the same direction?!

Turn around, Hendrix smokin’scuse me while I kiss the sky’. I quickstepped off toward the Waldorf Astoria. No one was getting out of New York, there tight as a conch cork in a bull’s ass. I might as well be comfortable if they were going to blow up Manhattan. “No rooms. Sorry.” Smile. “I can put you on the waiting list. What’s your name?.” Pause, flung back,- “Roger Hendrix”. No reaction. ‘Fuck you’.

Listening to the proceedings of the 9/11 commission on the radio yesterday driving around in the Ford Aerostar delivering teeth for Walter and Dental Designs, they were talking to the firemen and policemen who survived the first hours of rescue. After two years it still brought tears to my eyes to listen to them, to hear them tell this story, to see in my mind the earnest faces as they trudged up the stairs about to be sucked into a gray concrete milkshake, then later, when I heard Bernie Kerik and Tommy Von Essen tell the former Secretary of the Navy Lehman to basically ‘shove it up his ass’ when in the committee lunged in, Lehman attacking him and Kerik for the inter-department rivalries that may have hindered the rescue and caused the death of more firemen than was necessary (whatever that meant); and that made me smile. Whether they were wrong or right, it didn’t matter too much,-this was typical New York, ‘hey I’m walking here buddy!’ bravado, it was the same spirit that enabled New York to get us through that horrible day, right or wrong we did our best, if you don’t like it, you can shove it up your ass,—sir. I grabbed the bag of dentures with fierce pride. The radios didn’t work too well, ’tough shit’, this is New York, you try and get a Purchase Order approved. By the time the firefighters got where they were supposed to be, in the North Tower, they were already out of the loop, that was an unfortunate fact. Gnashing of teeth, –somebody else’s teeth (thank god). There was no Arlo Guthrie to tell them with uninflected nasal surprise when they got there, “Hey, the South Tower’s already collapsed man! The South Tower!” in that incredulous nasal twang. Just more static, stuck there between Fish’s Eddy and Liberty. Everyone trudging in the same direction, down and out, then up and up and uptown, and uptown, and up no panic, just walking, two distinct steadily ever increasing streams of people toward and away from the tide of some undefined gray sea. Somehow it felt as if suddenly everyone had realized that they were just utterly powerless, at precisely the same moment, not in a spiritual sense, but in a sitting in the dentist waiting room waiting for your dentures to arrive way when your old set was already in the trash. All you could do is walk, walk away, one foot in front of the other- if you can,-or fly. High heels, and dentures, toward the Waldorf, towards Caldors, towards some great, more organized and stylish gnashing of teeth. High heels rushing to meet some angry, grey shattered ground beyond the DMZ.

The kanji for walking always involves two ideograms or pictures, never a single one; the idea of going, plus, the idea of foot. There is no word for just plain old walking. There is ‘strolling’, ‘fast paced walking’, ‘walking on the edge of a sword’, ‘walking under the eaves’, ‘walking slowly’, ‘walking with feet pointed outwards’, -the exception is “walking under the eaves”, which can be expressed with only one pictogram. There were no buses, no trains running, traffic was dead stopped. There is no pictogram I know of for “walking in two lines covered with gray dust composed of pulverized silicate concrete and body parts”. There is no kanji for “walking down a country lane and meeting Jimi Hendrix’ twin brother, Roger”.

Kenneth L,  Author
NY