I went from Nashville to Lynchburg, Virginia one fine summer afternoon with the ultimate destination being Manhattan. I promptly developed a nose bleed somewhere around Knoxville. It must have been the higher elevation. We were to spend the evening at DD's grandmother's house. We must have left on a Sunday because we were excited about getting to see 120 Minutes in the basement of her home. Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" debuted that night and we were sure we had seen the future of popular rock and roll. The Chickasaw Mudd Puppies made an impression on us too. We rambled around the Virginia countryside and took in Colonial Williamsburg and DD's alma mater William & Mary too. We ate fresh baked bread made by his grandmother knowing we wouldn't have it so good until we stopped for the night on our return. DD ate my salad while his grandmother's back was turned so she wouldn't be disappointed in my appetite.
Appomattox was next on our list to visit. We stopped in the early morning haze to indulge in history. I was Civil War mad as a youth and I would visit Stones River Battlefield outside of Murfreesboro often. Appomattox was such an unassuming place to have witnessed such a momentous event. Somehow it was totally fitting. We didn't stay long since we needed to get to Richmond where one of DD's college friends, Randy, had offered us a night's lodging. We also wanted to devote some quality time to record store hopping.
We hit the Fan section of Richmond including a visit to Plan 9 Records. I wondered about how GWAR could have come from the VCU environs with all of the brightly painted pretty houses. We ran into a weird record store owner in some small shop in downtown Richmond who tried to peddle us some Ramones bootlegs. He detailed how gruesome the Jersey Turnpike was when we told him where we were headed later on our trip. What makes tourists want to open up before complete strangers; especially nutty record store proprietors.
I was the Bundini Brown to DD's Ali, the Kerouac to his Neal Cassaday until it came time to play softball that night with Randy. Randy and his fiancee Karen played for her accountants' team and they were shorthanded. DD refused to play since his hand eye coordination just wasn't suited for the slow paced world of softball, but I jumped at the chance to join their team. I hadn't played in years so I figured they would stick me in right field, but instead I was placed at first. I promptly committed a boneheaded error when I let a lazy blooper fall between me and Karen.
My first at bat was almost a disaster as I hit a slow roller into the infield, but I couldn't take another blow to my fragile ball playing ego that early in the contest so I made like Ricky Henderson and beat the throw to first for an infield hit. The rest of the evening went smooth as butter flavored popcorn as I made defensive stops at first and bashed out hit after hit to help lead the accountants to a victory. Their ultra-competitive third basemen that had been angry at me earlier had changed his tune asking me if I would join the team for good. It was tempting to remain in Richmond for the summer, but DD and I had to stick to our plan. We checked out Monument Avenue and then wished goodbye to Randy and Karen. We had a big day of driving ahead.
Baltimore, Delaware, and then North Brunswick, New Jersey were on tap. We caught a big break when the backup in the harbor tunnel at Baltimore was headed south. The bridge over the Delaware River loomed massively before disappearing briefly and then we on it excited at what lay in wait on the deadly Jersey Turnpike, which turned out to be just as dull as most highway systems are with none of the carnage or crazy drivers promised to us by the wacky record store owner in Richmond. We made better time than expected and ended up with time to kill in North Brunswick waiting for DD's bud Derek The Great to get off work.
DD and I made like good dumb Southern rubes when we decided to turn into a mall to waste time. The street system there was not like it is in Nashville and while we waited to make a left hand turn irate motorists behind honked their horns and screamed epithets at us. We just thought it was typical Yankee rudeness until we later figured out how the highways worked. We'd have yelled and honked at us too.
The mall was your typical suburban wasteland of junk filled to the brim that season with Simpson's merchandising. We killed time by killing our souls and then made it to Derek The Great's home where we were shown great courtesy by his gracious parents. Derek The Great showed us around North and South Brunswick that evening bragging about the number of bars per capita and taking us to the coolest record shop in town. We drove by his old high school which was atop a great hill. "When the weather is clear you can see the World Trade Center from here," mused Derek The Great. I thought I saw their lights, but it was a hazy night and it might have just been my dreams of visiting the city the next day were interfering with my eyes. He took us to a local market where I played some pinball and then tried to chat up the girl behind the counter showing the typical boldness I had when traveling that would never happen back home. We watched Letterman since he was still funny back then and I eventually fell to a fitful sleep.
I awoke to the sounds of breakfast. I don't know if I had ever had bagel before that day, but they were delicious. We got ready and soon we were in a brown train station that looked like it stepped out of the pages of On The Road waiting for the train that would take us into Manhattan. It clacked and swayed while the industrial wasteland section of New Jersey went by like some jerky anti-pollution classroom film from the 70's. I strained to try and see glimpses of the fabled isle, but soon we were in a tunnel with our next stop Grand Central Station.
DD had been to NYC before and obviously Derek The Great spent lots of time here since he was a 30 to 40 minute trip away, but the biggest city I had visited had been Atlanta. I had been absorbing scenes of New York from television starting with Sesame Street and I was excited about being there in the flesh. Grand Central didn't disappoint with its vast square footage with all of it occupied by commuters bustling as if they were all on roller skates. A fast pace might not be what most like, but as a punk rock junkie I liked breakneck speed in my music and my life. Our time here would be limited so we joined the horde.
First we had to go meet Derek The Great's lady friend. I know we were properly introduced, but I've forgotten her name. I do remember having to be buzzed into her lobby which was something new for me. Our first destination was the Metropolitan Museum so we could get us a whole heaping bowl of high culture and art. Plus I had always wanted to visit the place after reading From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a child. It did not disappoint me. We saw a Tiffany's exhibit. We saw lots of Egyptian stuff and the Jackson Pollack paintings amazed with their size.
Next up was a visit to the comic book mecca, Forbidden Planet, where Spiderman himself was making an in-store visit. It was conveniently located by Tower Records which is where Derek's lady informed DD and I about this awesome record store in Princeton, New Jersey called the Record Exchange. DD's Spock ears went up since he was planning on us cutting through Jersey. We went to a pizza slice place for lunch where we got “soup nazi” type service. Some Southerners might have found it rude, but I thought it was very efficient. I've never been a fan of people that like to talk to clerks when there's a line behind them. I made the mistake of giving some spare change to a bum. I felt sorry for him because he was wearing a Knicks shirt, but as soon as I handed him my change a line formed behind him of beggars materializing as if from thin air.
We made a pilgrimage to the Bowery and C.B.G.B.'s naturally. Since we had done pretty much what we wanted; we let Derek's lady pick the last spot of the day. She took us down to the old seaport. It was cool to be able to see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue Of Liberty from it, but it was ultimately just a mall in a throwback uniform. Since nightfall was upon us we took a taxi to Penn Station. The driver was Middle Eastern, the ride was super fast through chaotic streets, and I loved it.
We went by the Empire State Building and Derek's lady made a remark about our wonderful Southern accents. DD and I laughed. When we're home in Tennessee everybody thought we were Yankees. So we started laying on what accent we had super thick. It was a fun game. “Wow is that Madison Squaredance Garden?”
We got on the train for Jersey and headed back to Derek's for one more night before our trip took us towards Allentown, Pennsylvania. We crossed through the middle of Jersey making sure to stop in Princeton. We toured the university and then the most important part: the Record Exchange. We went there with subdued hopes, but were bowled over by the riches inside. If only we'd had several days and lots more money to shop there. Soon we had to press on.
My ultimate destination had been Manhattan, but DD's actual mission was to attend a wedding in Allentown. It was an afterthought to me. Heck, I figured I'd stay in the hotel while the wedding was happening. I didn't know any of DD's friends except for the few I'd met during the trip. When I found out I'd have to attend the wedding I got just a little ticked off. I refused to eat the buffet at the hotel which got DD mad. When he found out I didn't have a suit jacket packed or a tie I knew I was really getting under his skin. I hadn't expected to go to a wedding I told him as I munched my Dominos pizza I had ordered. DD had packed an extra jacket and tie and being similar in size it would do. I dreaded the next day.
Allentown was a dump. I was in a foul mood. There was no way the day would turn out well. Often when I focus on the purely negative it has a way of turning around into a positive. This was the case at the wedding of DD's pal Dan Berry. It began with a joke by the pastor about there not being so many Southerners in the area since Lee was at Gettysburg and got better as the ceremony went on. I'd never been to an Episcopal wedding and I thought all the standing up and sitting down and reciting was interesting. So I had a good time until DD informed me that next we were heading to the Pocono's for the reception.
My negative vibes started spinning around again. Then I got served chicken cordon bleu. There was a band. Even better was the wet bar. Free liquor meant one happy Wally; especially since I wasn't driving. We still wished we had drank more when the afternoon was over. We had a long slow speed limit slog down the Pennsylvania Turnpike ahead of us. You damn sure couldn't miss the hex signs on the barns or the huge signs warning of the huge fine you’d receive if you drove just 1 mile over the limit. We had been warned that the traffic cops meant business so we toed the line. It was ridiculous and it seemed like forever.
We eventually made it out, cruising through West Virginia and Maryland, before heading for the Shenandoah Valley where we were convinced it was the place where oldies format radio went to die. There are also no gas stations around. We almost ran out of gas before filling up not far from UVA. Then it was Lynchburg late at night and the welcome basement of DD's grandmother.
One more day on the road and we were home. It was the longest trip of my life at the time. Other things I remember: The amount of Kiss stuff in the Jersey record stores. Kiss was many years removed from their initial fame or their eventual comeback, but they never went away there. Meeting DD's friend Dorian at William & Mary. Buying a Secret Affair album in Richmond and then listening to at Randy's pad. Just shooting the shit with Derek The Great. Looking for Lehigh University and never really knowing if we had found it our not. But the thing I remember most is the World Trade Center.
The obvious reason why was 9-11-2001. I think back to 1990 and that day in Manhattan. The two towers were always popping into sight as we went through the city. I've got snapshots of them I took from blocks away. My pop culture obsessed mind saw them as the place that King Kong had climbed and the place where the cast of Godspell sang their final song. They were abstract even as I saw them in person.
Until that beautiful September day when they disappeared in a burst of crumbling dust and they have stood concrete and resolute in my mind ever since. Even though it’s something I don't want to summon, wishing those scumbags had never been to flight school, the anger I felt that day is quick to come. The images of people leaping from the windows and the smoke and turmoil aren't pleasant, but they'll be with me forever. I had only known NYC from television and the movies until I visited it in 1990 and how strange it was to hear people describe the events of 9-11 as being like a movie. But there were no stunt people used. The loss of innocent life is what should be remembered and lamented. The 2,996 project is devoted to remembering those that lost their life in the terrorist attacks.
I didn't know anyone that lost their life that day but Derek The Great's words haunted me that day as they still do today, "When the weather is clear you can see the World Trade Center from here," spoken at his high school atop a hill in North Brunswick. It was such a normal thing to say for a Jersey boy filled with pride entertaining a couple of good ole boys from Tennessee. It just reminds me of how normal it was for those people going about their business on 9-11. Everything since feels askew.