PaulFreedman.net: Selected Writings / Music Reviews
Have a Nice Day
by Paul Harris Freedman
I've been sitting in the Togo's in Williams, California for the past 6 hours. I'm supposed to be biking to the coast of California now, but I injured myself. When I try to pedal the bike it feels like someone jammed pebbles under my kneecaps. But don't worry! I have two MD's on their way to see me! My sister and her boyfriend Nick are coming. Williams is only two hours from San Francisco.
It started yesterday when we slogged through mud on our bikes, loaded with fifty pounds of gear, after dark, in the rain. We were in California's Central Valley. It used to be a broad grassland speckled with live oak trees. But now it's all farmland. Every inch. Which means there is nowhere to camp until you get to the foothills on the other side, and even there it's iffy because the wild places of California are now ranches - unless you are in a National Forest, where the rule is still "no camping," but at least there's lots of trees to hide in, and if you get caught, it's going to be a ranger and not some lunatic with a shotgun.
But I digress. Yesterday we were not anywhere near the national forest. We were in the middle of the Central Valley, where all the land is spoken for. And besides, the whole valley was a puddle yesterday. It's been raining for four days straight here. We passed through Williams last night after dark and stopped at a deli looking at the map and taking olives from the olive tasting bar. Then we headed off into the night for 8 more agonizing miles. I felt like my knees were clamped in a vice lined with two inch nails.
The two guys I was with - Kipchoge and Ben - they were strong. Most of the day we rode together in a pace line. The thing about a pace line is when you're riding in the back, you're in the wind tunnel, and you only have to exert two thirds of the energy to go the same speed as the leader. But you can't stay behind forever, because then the person in front gets tired. So you take turns in the lead. (Or more accurate with the lingo, you take "pulls".)
So last night, when I headed out from the deli with four advil in my belly and my knees making my mouth shout "fuck you!" into the night, to no one in particular, Ben and Kipchoge pulled me one hundred percent of the time. But I dreaded each pedal stroke; I couldn't keep up. So Ben put his hand on my back and pushed, giving me a slingshot boost every hundred yards or so. Then Kipchoge joined in, and my two friends were pushing me down a back farmroad, in the rain, and the blackness of night, and the pain. It was a feeling I'd never had before in my life, a stinging mixture of inspiration and humiliation. Even with both of them pushing I felt I could not go on. We were still 3 miles away from the dashed road on the map that we thought might have a camping spot. So Kipchoge took a length of cord from his gear and rigged it around my frame and towed me. He was pulling: himself, his gear, me, and my gear, about 500 pounds total. This could not last. He did valiantly until the first foothill, about a mile. I unhooked and pedaled. Standing up wasn't as bad as sitting down. Of course when we got there the dirt road was private - California! - and we continued west. About a mile later we pulled off and found a good spot on the storm-swollen banks of a gushing river. We put up our tent and hung our things to dry. Our shoes were soaked even with the shopping bags around our feet. What a joke! The food was dry, thankfully, and I tried to stretch, but really, I'm not a yoga expert or anything. I hoped my knees would feel better in the morning, but I didn't think I had a chance.
"If worse comes to worse," said Kipchoge, "the Greyhound stops in Williams."
In the morning it was still raining. I wanted to stay in my sleeping bag forever. We put our wet clothes back on and broke camp, and got to the road. Within two miles I knew it was over. We were about to head into the National Forest. It was the point of no return. If I got stuck in there, it would be a long, cold, wet way out. I said goodbye to Kipchoge and Ben and walked away.
The trip was our declaration of independence. We were going to make it to the coast and tell everyone at the new years concert we did it without cars, all by ourselves. But there I was, swallowing advils, crawling back to car culture. I couldn't even count on my own knees.
On my way back to route 20 -- where I thought I could hitchhike -- I saw seven vehicles. Three were going my way, and four were going the other way. Two stopped. The first was very nice, but the guy was driving a Thunderbird and he had no room for my bike. The second must have been on drugs because the first thing he said was:
"Where are the pigs?"
"Huh?" I said.
"Where are the pigs?"
"The wild pigs!"
"Oh, the wild pigs. I haven't seen any of those." OK. I kept walking.
At 20, I thumbed pickup trucks for an hour but no one stopped. Fuck it. I walked three hours to Williams. Where does the bus come? Oh, it stops at the Togo's, across the freeway. Thanks. Do you know when the next one is coming through? Between six and eight. Between six and eight? Yes, the driver will usually stop the bus and let people buy a sandwich.
I call Greyhound to check.
"Thank you for calling Greyhound. Please enter the first three letters of the city you are leaving from."
"Thank you. For Watsonville, press one. All other locations press zero for an operator."
"Hello Greyhound this is Tony speaking how can I help you?"
"I'm trying to get from Williams to the Bay Area."
"You missed all the busses for today. The next bus out of Williams is at 5:50 tomorrow morning."
"I'd really like to get home tonight. Are there any routes near here that have service tonight?"
"Well I don't know the area very well. Are there any stops near Williams that you know about?"
"Sir I can't help you unless you give me a starting city." Click.
OK. I walk to Togo's. Still raining. 5 o'clock comes. 6 comes. 7 comes. 8 comes. No bus.
I walk to the payphone in the rain on the edge of the parking lot. I call my cousins in San Francisco, but no one is home.
Then the bus rolls up, taking a wide sweeping approach to the parking lot. And across its clear glass windshield, I see a lighted sign that reads: "Seattle." Fuck.
So now you know how I got this esteemed moment. It's ten o'clock. My sister and her boyfriend will be here in about an hour. The Togo's and Baskin Robbins part of the operation have closed. It's just a Texaco now.
I get up to buy a Twix and a banana, and the girl rings me up. I hand her a five.
"Sorry it's wet," I say.
"That's OK," she says. She hands me my change.
"Have a nice day," she says. I just stand there.
"Did you just tell me to have a nice day?" I ask. The words spill out so fast it scares me.
Have a nice day? I've been sitting at your fucking Togo's since four in the afternoon and all you can tell me is have a nice day? I wait for her to respond but she's counting out someone else's change.
In Europe, I could break down ten miles outside some small town, and a friendly old farmer would throw my bike in the back of his truck. We'd walk into the cafe where the townspeople drink wine and beer all evening. Someone would know someone who was driving to the city the nest day, and I'd sleep in a tiny room above the bar after singing songs with the locals, vowing to return with my wife for our honeymoon.
In California, the drivers slow down enough to get a good look at you, and you end up at a Togo's run by teenagers who ignore you, don't know whether the 6PM to 8 PM Greyhound runs south or north (after two years of handing the driver the same pack of Marlboro Lights night after night), and tell you to have a good day at ten o'clock. There's a Motel 6 across the freeway, right next to the Arby's.
You should see the signs they hang in the windows at Togo's. They really demonstrate the true compassion and depth of the Togo's community. Most of them are about the sandwiches, of course, but a couple of them are different.
Sign number one: "We at Togo's are horrified by the disastrous events that unfolded in the United States on September 11." (Togo's is donating coffee and food to the volunteers.)
Sign two responds to last year's California energy crisis: "You may not be able to get a burger or a taco in a blackout - but you can count on Togo's to make a great tasting sandwich, with or without power." What a relief.
The overnight man just arrived, the kids left without saying goodbye, and there's a guy two tables down reading, and I mean reading, not just flipping through, Hustler Magazine.