1972. Houston. Something happened.
I worked for ITT Grinnell, in the rough part of east Houston. I lived 25 miles away, in Clear Lake, to the south. I worked in the warehouse, pulling pipe fitting orders that would be shipped to area refineries and other industries. The work was not easy, but I sort of enjoyed it. Especially when the butane fork lifts got replaced with zippy electric models – forklift races were fun while the boss was on break.
I got paid shit-for-beans. When talk among the serfs turned to forming a union, I told my good friend Danny Martinez that I wasn't sure (I was young and very ignorant about everything...still am...ignorant, not young). Danny threatened to non-metaphorically stab me in the back with his switchblade if I didn't join in. He was very serious, that Danny.
One late afternoon in late summer, I clocked out and then got in my '70 Impala. To head home down the interstate. You had to drive a couple miles through murder neighborhoods to reach the on-ramp. I think I got on the freeway. But I must have been weary, because I made some kind of wrong turn at some point. I can't remember the particulars of that wrong turn, but somehow I ended up bearing east-southeast on a different arm of the interstate. Maybe it was one of those things where you have to be paying attention to your lane, and I got Y-ed off toward shock, weirdness, and near-panic.
It took a while for me to even realize I was on the wrong path. When I did, I felt a psychological unhinging. Instant hopelessness. Because in this part of Houston, you get lost, you rarely ever come out again. At least that was my instant evaluation. After miles of hoping for a sign that would indicate an arm toward the true interstate, I finally took an off-ramp. To find a spot to stop. Collect my thoughts. Figure out a plan. There were no cell phones in those days, so I was left to my own resources.
I decided against turning around and heading back the way I had come. Something told me that would end up in catastrophe. I don't think there were any gas stations in sight where I had left the freeway, nor other stores from which to ask directions. It was a strange half-residential, half-parallel universe. I sat there thinking......not really thinking...more like being a zombie behind the wheel. My brain was not working at all.
I decided to go take a right and head south on the highway. I curved this way and that, so eventually I didn't know whether I was still bearing south or if I was going east into unimaginable chaos. The road went up over another highway. For some reason, that moment is still vivid. That moment was when the shock turned into an almost delightful weirdness. Or maybe an existential resignation: “OK...if I'm to be lost forever, well...it is what it is.”
And the night seemed heavy with a wonderful brooding menace. But soon, as I plunged farther into the dark cloud of unknowing, a feeling of near-panic kicked in. I envisioned myself eventually running out of gas and then on foot. And then in the morgue.
Serendipitously, the path I was on led to an intersection, with a sign indicating the way to San Jacinto. Deliverance! I took the turn and was on the highway that paralleled the true interstate, all the way to Clear Lake. I survived.
I bring up this misadventure because it became fuel for night dreams years later. For the past 10 years, I've had dreams at least once a week about driving around lost in a quasi-Little Rock. And 20 years ago, I had three dreams about being lost in a Houston cloverleaf. The sense of necessary transcendence in those three dreams was utter and palpable. The city around that vast, tangled interstate swelled to De Quincey-esque proportions. The sense of dread was horrible, terrifying, and so damn wonderful!
Looking back into dream memory, I see that nothing about those three dreams was lucid. I had zero control of the circumstances. I had no resource but fate. There is no way to describe the way things looked or the deep nature of how things felt. The only phrase I can employ is “awful sublimity”. Surely that night in 1972 was the generator of those three almost-nightmares and of those later lost-in-Little Rock dreams. I am so grateful that I got soul-shattered by having taken that wrong turn.
I'm pretty sure my inspiration for writing this thing today is the film WAKING LIFE. I watched the DVD of it last night, for about the fifth or sixth time. I love this movie. The look of it, the feel of it, the sense of it. The “plot” isn't really about being physically lost; rather, it's about being spiritually misplaced. But it captures quite well that feel of confusion I felt so many years ago.