On the Road
The horse and buggy had been venturing down I-95 for a few hours now. At this point, they had already passed several towns and small cities. Besides the overhead signs that labeled them, Robert could tell they were passing into a new town when a break occurred in the trees lining the highway, thus leaving a clear view of a shopping center.
The shopping centers had been the towns; they were the most important places because they brought people together. Twenty to thirty years ago, thought Robert, the more traditional places that brought people together were no longer relevant. People didn’t need churches because frankly, they could get a sermon on TV or online without a baby crying in front of them or a badly behaved husband snoring, thus ruining the word of the lord. A whole bunch of other stuff could also be done online too, thus causing the decline of the physical places that offered these activities. Community centers were no longer used because people could attend online knitting courses, or play a number of sports on a video game system that was hooked up to the internet. Of course, shopping could also done online, but it took a number of days to get what you bought and there wasn’t a cute girl/boy who offered you help but you refused because you were too nervous even though you needed their assistance… The bottom line is that public spaces were irrelevant in that world, so people flocked to the malls – whether mini, strip, or mega – in order to find some human activity.
The shopping centers provided every activity, not just human, in one convenient location. Whether it was food, entertainment, or just some meaningless shopping, you could find it at all the mall. However, times have changed. These activity centers are now lifeless; they have been reduced to nearly nothing. Nobody lived by them, so nobody attended them. They were just unkempt museums of a way of life that has passed a decade ago.
If nobody was going to these shopping centers anymore, then nobody was using the roads that were built specifically to get more people to those places. This all meant that Clayton and Robert moved down the I-95 with little resistance. There were no traffic jams, no exurban commuters, no accidents; Slush and Mudd just trotted down the interstate highway at a consistent pace.
They hadn’t even seen a single other person since they left the Springfield Mall parking lot. This was eerie considering that the I-95 was the main route of the East Coast megalopolis. The freights can be blamed for the inactivity these days, but Robert expected to have seen at least one buggy going back towards Washington by now. It must have been a slow week for the Mid-Eastern Seaboard District’s PR department, thought Robert.
As far as the journey has gone, Clayton and Robert hadn’t exchanged many words since they left the parking lot. Clayton was a charismatic man and all, but he wasn’t one to spill his guts out to a stranger. Plus, buggy drivers always seem to be skeptical of PR people because every driver has had to deal with an overly optimistic PR person who has an unchallenged faith regarding Alpha Corp’s system; meanwhile, buggy drivers like to moan and complain about this system. It’s an age old tradition. When you get a group of workers together, they will naturally shit talk their boss, but if you introduced a supervisor to the social circle, all of a sudden things go quite. So, following in this tradition, the drivers keep their mouths shut around PR people – who play the part of the supervisor - until they know they’re on their side. You can’t be narked on if you hadn’t said anything to begin with.
Robert, on the other hand, wasn’t the most charismatic man; however, he was very perceptive. He figured that Clayton must think that he must be one of those overly optimistic PR persons, so he kept his mouth closed. Robert didn’t want to give off the vibe that he was a motor mouth - that could easily depress the driver out for the next week - so he just kept to his himself for the time being. He tried to guess the road side tree species as they rode past them; he tried to remember if he had ever been to the towns that they passed; he tried to remember all the towns that he had been to; he pondered songs that were named after towns; and he remembered songs that he liked.
Robert even tried to read the rest of the Streetcar article, just to pass the time, but he gave up after reading a page or so because he thought it was unfair to Clayton, seeing as Clayton has to keep his eyes on the road and the horses and all. But, Clayton did see that Robert was reading a book entitled The Critical History of Contemporary North America, which would mean that Robert must’ve been capable of some critical thought; a skill that those goofy PR youngins can’t seem to comprehend. This gave Robert some conversation worthy points, but Clayton wasn’t ready to converse just yet.
That was alright because both Clayton and Robert were at the age where they can tolerate a little silence, even appreciate it. People are social animals, so talking to each other is natural, but there has to be a point where one draws the line. There is necessary conversation, and then there’s unnecessary conversation. Some people banter all day but never seem to say anything important which would place them in the latter category. On the contrary, there are people who choose their words wisely - only saying what is needed – which would put them in the former category. Although these categories aren’t black and white, all people can ascribe themselves to one more so than the other. Clayton and Robert are more of patrons of the former. Each having been on this earth for a number of years, and each having been around enough PR people, they have effectively learned where to draw the line when it comes to resourceful conversation. All of this means that the silence that they’re experiencing right now is less of an awkward silence, but more of an acknowledgeable silence.
They had just passed Fredricksburg when Clayton began to hum a tune. It wasn’t truly a hum because it contained elements of beat boxing, but whatever it was, it was recognizable. The tune started enveloping Robert’s thoughts. He couldn’t focus on anything else. He knew the tune, but couldn’t put his finger on it. After searching his memory and coming up empty handed, Robert just bit the bullet and asked, “Umm, what song is that again?”
This did the unthinkable: it broke the silence.
“Hmmm, I don’t know if I should tell you. No offense. It’s just that I was getting tore into earlier today for speaking to ‘black.’ The song just might add to that perception.”
“I’m not going to judge. I might not be the right guy to say it, but feel free to speak the way you’ve always spoke. Whether it’s ‘too black’ or ‘too white,’ I don’t care. That’s just who you are.” Realizing that he’s probably coming on to strong, in the sense that he’s speaking so positively that he might sound like one of those PR people that he’s trying not to seem like, Robert changed the subject. “It’s just that… that tune, I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t remember what it was.”
Clayton liked Robert’s little statement. When he would talk to some of the black drivers they would tell him to cut the ebonics and become a little more sophisticated, while sometimes when he talked to white drivers he got the feeling that he was simply entertaining them with his dialect. Those situations bugged him because he was just being himself: an African-American from one of the rougher neighborhoods in Birmingham. It was as though these people were telling him that being himself was wrong, or it was non-intentionally amusing. But Robert was encouraging him to be himself, so Clayton opened up and answered the question. “It’s Nursery Rhyme Spree by Thicky Wooster.”
“Yes. That’s it, that’s what I was thinking of.”
“Funny thing, Thicky Wooster is my older cousin,” said Clayton with a smile on his face.
“I’m serious. His real name’s Chris Johnson and if you can remember my last name,”
“Johnson!” Robert said before Clayton could finish.
“So you’re from Atlanta, right?”
“Nope. Good guess though. Thicky lived in ATL once he was popular. I’m surprised you remember that.”
“Oh that’s right. Alabama then?”
“Bingo. Birmingham to be exact,” replied Clayton with a sense of pride.
“Cool. So you’re a southern man.”
A moment passed where nobody said anything. Robert thought that might of came out wrong, so he tried to correct any wrong doing.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just haven’t meet that many people from the South. Well, at least since the Restructuring. I haven’t been down to Atlanta, or Houston, or any of the real southern Homesteads.”
“Yah, I catch your drift. I don’t come across many southerners either,” said Clayton. Just to keep the conversation going, and out of curiosity, Clayton asked, “Whereabouts are you from? I mean, before the Restructuring and all.”
“It’s kind of hard to say.”
“It comes out sounding like a life story when I try and decide where I’m from.” Robert tried to say this without sounding too pretentious.
“Shoot. I’ve got all day, so I’m all ears.”
“Okay. I was born in Duluth. That’s in Minnesota by the way,”
“Yah, yah, I know. That folk geezer from way back was from there, right?”
“Yes, Duluth: the birthplace of Bob Dylan. I don’t even think he lived there though. It’s just one of those trivia game factoids. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even born Bob Dylan, so can you even say it’s ‘Bob Dylan’s’ birthplace?”
“I guess you would have to say Bob Dylan’s birthplace is in the city that has the court where he got his name changed. Or do you even get your name changed in court?”
“I’ve never changed mine, so I’m not too sure.” Robert then thought about it for a second. “Actually, I’m pretty sure you would get it changed at a registry place. Like, where you would go to get a license or something like that. I just think that you’re taking ‘legally changed name’ too literal.”
“That’s probably it. But I just thought of something: what if Bob Dylan never legally changed his name, he just used that name as a stage name. Then what’s considered his birthplace?”
“Uh, I think we’re getting sidetracked,” said Clayton. “Anyways, you were born in Duluth…”
“Yes, but I only lived there for a few years. The years you don’t remember anything, so Duluth isn’t that important to me. Next my family, which was my parents and I, moved to Indianapolis where we lived a couple of years. Then they split up and lived in two different places. My mom lived in Minneapolis while my father lived in Chicagoland.”
“So you got a lot of travelling while growing up.”
“Yah, but not fun travelling. Long train rides or short plane rides where I was by myself at a pretty young age because my parents couldn’t stand seeing each other anymore.”
“Yah, I gotcha.”
“But it’s trivial. It’s just petty white kid problems when you get down to it. I’m sure you’ve been through worse, being from Alabama and all.”
“Amen,” responds Clayton. After a moment of thinking it over, he said, “You know what, growing up in Alabama was hard and all, but maybe not as hard as you’d think.”
“Really? Maybe I’m just being naïve, but if I would’ve had to guess, I would jump to the conclusion and just expect it to be rough.”
“Meh. It wasn’t the worst. You’re probably just givin’ into some stereotypes, like, ‘poor inner city life’ type of deal.”
“That’s probably it.” Robert wanted to find out what life was like growing up in Birmingham, so he tried to keep the conversation on this topic. “I don’t want to pry or anything, but how was your upbringing not that rough? Did you live in the ‘burbs of Birmingham or something?”
“Nope, nothing like that. I lived in a ‘hood, like you’d expect, but I didn’t grow up during the crack epidemic. Thank God for that. My dad told me what it was like growing up during that time and it sounded real shady. But anyways, I think most white people picture all black people living in inner-city, crack riddled environments, even if they grew up well after the 90s. So I didn’t have to go through that.”
“Fair enough, but what about work and all that? I’m just gonna guess and say that Birmingham was an industrial city, and like all other industrial cities, was probably on the decline while you were growing up.”
“That’s right. Sort of. They used to call Birmingham ‘The Pittsburg of the South,’ but it wasn’t like that at all when I was growing up. It was all about banking and insurance and finance and tele… tele… aww what’s that word again?”
“Yah that’s the one.”
“No offense, but those are white people jobs.”
Clayton looked over at Robert with his eyes wide open and his head cocked to the side. He had the ‘what did you just say look’ on his face.
“I mean, shit. I shouldn’t have said that.” Robert gave himself a second to organize his thoughts, then spoke up. “I mean, traditionally those are white people jobs. I’m not trying to say that African-Americans would only work blue collar jobs because that’s far from the truth. It’s just that, those kind of jobs you need a college education, and in order to get a decent college education you need a sound financial backing, which for white kids is usually their parents. But for an African-American to get an education it must’ve been a lot harder because history has made it hard for many of them to get a sound financial backing because of racist policies, then later on the inequalities that stemmed from those policies even after they were abolished…”
“Whoa, whoa. Back it up for a second. And to think, I was called out for being a professor today, but here’s one riding shotgun with me now.” Robert looked incredibly confused, so Clayton tried to clarify things. “I was just fucking with you a second ago. I know those are white people jobs. White collar, white people; same thing.”
“Phew. For a second there I thought you were pissed at me. I thought that I would be walking from here on out.”
“Nah man, I get what you’re saying. The education thing is a little off though.”
“I’m not always right. I can admit that.”
“Nobody is. Anyways, you could go to a black college. But then again, if you tried to get a job at one of those white person facilities they would probably say, ‘So, you went to MLKU huh. Well, we know you probably know a lot about the civil rights movement and all, but that’s not the kind of skills we are looking for. We hope you can find a job that pertains more to your field.’ All the while the guy got a business degree at MLKU. They just didn’t bother to look after they saw the school’s name.”
“That’s unfair. Did that happen to you?”
“Ohh hell no. That’s just something I thought up. All I’m trying to say is that you could get an education, but getting a job at one of these places was a whole ‘notha thing. You would need to get a job at a place that was black owned, and let me tell you, when I was of working age things weren’t even white owned anymore, they were all Chinese owned. And not American-Chinese, I’m talking about the real deal, Chinese-Chinese.”
Robert nodded his head and said, “True. Good point. Maybe not everything, but most things.”
“Uh huh.” After a short pause, Clayton said, “I think we got a little pulled off course. What were we talking about again?”
Robert put some thought into it. Finally answer, “How Birmingham wasn’t as bad as what you’d think.”
“Ohh yeh. Okay. So yah, my dad worked at the train yard while we was growing up. He didn’t make that much dough, but at least he had a job. Get me.”
“Yah, yah. So your father had a job, but he didn’t make enough to get you guys out of the rough neighborhood?”
“Something like that. Things were hard, but we got by. Plus, all the local ‘hood rats left me alone cause my cousin was a bit of a local celebrity. Nobody wanted to be known as ‘dat nigga dat fucked with Chris Johnson’s cousin.’”
“You sort of had invincibility.”
“Yah, you could say that. Plus, once Chris blew up, you know, the whole Thicky Wooster thing where everyone knew who he was, he was making more bread than the Wonder corporation. Although he was living up in ATL, he never forgot where he came from so he was hooking his aunt and uncle up. That made my family’s situation a whole lot easier.”
“That couldn’t last forever though. Only a few musicians were successful for a long time. Like, over a decade long. No offense, I’m not trying to say that Thicky had a short self-life or anything, all I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t have supported you and your parents for that long.”
“It’s true. But then again, my dad was still working at the train yard. And the train yard was getting more and more important as the years went on too, so he was getting raises and what not. I guess you have to think about the dates.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m younger than you. You might be thinking about how if you had a superstar cousin when you were young, what it would be like. But when I was young, you was much older.”
“So the year would be later.” Robert nodded. “I get it, I have to put it into context.”
“Yah, that’s it. See, when Thicky blew up, I was around 14. When the Restructuring happened, I was still a young man. I was 26. Thicky didn’t have to be popular for decades and decades to help us out in the ghetto; he only had to be around for what, 12 years? Meanwhile, my dad was making his own.”
“Yah. By the way, Thicky still had fans up until the Restructuring. Not too too many of them, but you know how it is. He had worked his way down from stadiums, but he was still playing medium sized clubs.”
“At least he never became so irrelevant that he had to start doing concerts at roadside casinos.”
“Hahah, nah. Funny thing, I was his tour bus driver during some of the later years, so it would’ve been my ass driving him to those casinos if it hadn’t been for the Restructurin’.”
“You had the job until the Restructuring?”
“Yah. Had that job at the ripe old age of 24 up until I was 26.”
“Which means that you must be a millennium baby.”
“Oh crazy. That must make you feel special…”
Robert and Clayton continued talking while Slush and Mudd continued trekking down the deserted I-95. Robert was in a pretty good mood because he was given an interesting driver, and on the other hand, Clayton had been surprised that his passenger could carry a conversation that didn’t involve the inner workings of public relations, so he was feeling pretty good as well. For the both of them, this assignment was going much better than they had expected.