Don't be afraid to try again--Everyone goes south Every now and then. Billy Joel
We had to go. We had to hit the road, the timeless pacifier for restless souls. Maybe the American frontier closed around the turn of the century, but then Henry Ford started mass producing cars and the federal government started building a national highway web, and if Twentieth-Century America is left with no obvious direction in which to grow, you cannot stop Twentieth-Century Americans from going anyway, getting into big cars and getting buzzed and plunging into the interstate highway system to lose their identities in rivers of metal and asphalt that hold out the promise of something new and exciting, always just off the next exit, just past the next Howard Johnson's, just after the next interchange. Such is the lure of the road in America. Such was the mirage we chased.
Namo and I had some vague notion of our direction, of looking for the Great American Spring Vacation in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale, mixing with the young and healthy and promising Undergraduates of Our Time. Hearty drinking and hedonism--it was a simple goal. A little honest lust had a definite appeal. There had been too many nights spent squinting at obscure volumes in Lamont, too many nights hanging out at House grilles and Harvard Square bars, too many pointless dinner conversations, too many wild spring days already spent in gloomy rooms and lecture halls. Our 20-year-old libidos were bottled up, our wildness restrained.
The professors' closing remarks in our last classes before vacation might as well have been starters' pistols. Our clutches engaged and Namo and I opened our throttles. Bags were packed, a care was rented. I found a party in Connecticut Friday night. Saturday Namo arrived from Cambridge with a big blue boat of a rented car. We got unlimited mileage in the rental deal, and we had collision insurance, too. Namo grinned when he told me. The people at the rental agency would not have liked his grin. Saturday night we spent driving in a storm, moving south at 75 miles per hour on Interstate 95, through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. As we crossed into Florida, the skies cleared and the sun rose. It was clearly the promised land.
By this time, we had been on the road more than 20 hours, had gone through several Cokes apiece and had started on a bottle of No-Doz. But in spite of the caffeine in our blood, we started to lose touch. As I passed a tractor-trailer near Jacksonville my eyelids forced their way shut, and I dreamed that a giant copy of a history course syllabus was sailing down the road behind me, trailing our Pontiac. I awoke some three inches from a guard rail. Namo drove for a while after that, but he, too, insisted on taking split-second naps at the wheel. I still cannot remember how we got to Fort Lauderdale alive, but my next memory after the giant syllabus and an uncomfortably close look at some palm trees is that of Namo and I waking up on the beach in our shorts, two pale WASPish figures lying next to a herd of tanned and blonded young Aryan demigods frolicking in the sun. When I looked around me I noticed a girl from Michigan State, coated with coconut oil, lying next to us and leering at me without speaking. I put my heard back in the sand and slept.
So this was the American student's spring playland, where high school kids try to pass themselves off as collegians, college students try to act like high school kids, and the hotels, bars and discos keep both groups signing travelers' checks fast enough to cause writer's cramp. Where status is measured by the darkness of one's tan, the cut of one's clothes, and the flash of one's car. Where the wide-eyed seek true romance, the native seek experience, and the jaded seek an easy lay. Where everyone wears a swimsuit during the day but nobody spends much time in the water. The smell of coconut oil on the beach almost equals the smell of salt spray; the taste of beer touches far more tongues than that of brine. The ocean is just an excuse.
So this was how to get away from it all. In fact, it all seemed to be right there--college life, minus the intellectual content, transported to a warm climate where most people are strangers. Namo and I have sneered at the Freshman Mixer for years now, but something--wanderlust or maybe perverse interest--had nonetheless brought us to one big goddam non-stop, open-air, all-East Freshman Mixer. There were new elements to it, of course. The Harvard mixer had no Midwesterners cruising in turquoise Firebirds with tailwings and racing stripes. It had no 30-year-old hangers-on. It had no wet t-shirt contests. Elvis Presley could never have made one of his Tarzan-of-our-time movies at Harvard's Memorial Hall. But the requisite Fort Lauderdale scam of being charming to strangers seemed too much like the mixer mentality for Namo and I to feel that we had escaped from much. The main thing everyone there had left behind was restraint.
The crucible and the focus of the primitive energies unleashed in Fort Lauderdale is the strip in the evening. The city's beach is nice, its motels are mediocre, and its restaurant franchises are just like those anywhere in the country; a Burger King is a Burger King is a Burger King. But the city's strip is perhaps the ultimate cruise in America in late March--rivalled only by Daytona Beach to the north. Everyone puts up his coolest front, wears his hippest clothes, drivers his meanest car. And they do it by the thousands, all along a one-mile stretch. The reason for the hubbub is simple; one Ohio State sophomore put it rather bluntly: "Hot nights, hot cars, hot women and cold beer." High aspirations, these.
Namo and I initially stepped back and started to analyze the scene from a sociological standpoint, being effete Eastern intellectuals. But it is the king of pace that defies analysis in its simplicity; the sophomore from Ohio State had summed up the place's raison d'etre as well as anything we could say. So, the second day there, Namo and I were beeping and hooting and prowling the discos with the rest of the common animals. If you can't analyze 'em, join 'em.
It's nothing new. Cruising is an ancient art form, practiced on foot in Europe centuries before George Lucas made "American Grafitti." But America has adapted it, like other facets of Western civilization, on an enormous scale. In a rural Italian town 50 youths strolling by a park can turn a street into a strip; in Florida, it takes thousands to attain that critical mass. And the bids for sexual favors derive from an electic base. There are the crude grabs for women's body parts made by passing motorists. There are the fur-lined vans idling forward with their side doors open, displaying beds and smoking water pipes inside. There are the old-fashioned gearheads who think that if they can only put in their Chevys big enough and loud enough engines, they will be the stars of the strip. And there are some who take a simple, direct approach, shouting out their love to the belle from Georgia cruising in the cherry-red Corvette her daddy gave her. The method varies, the madness doesn't.
The madness became wearying soon enough for Namo and I. Skin accustomed to the grey skies of Cambridge burns easily, and after a few successive nights the flashing lights and thumping bass of a disco make the club-hopper feel more like a soldier in the trenches at Chateau-Thierry in 1917 than a happy vacationer in Florida in the spring of 1978. After a while, the beer started to lose its tang, the rebel yells started to sound strained, and the blond, tanned 30-year-olds lounging at beachside bars started to look like desperate characters. The mirage was fading.
Fort Lauderdale is not a place to linger. Old people there stand out in a cruel light. It is best to come in fired up, blow off steam quickly, and then leave quickly, rather than stay on a few extra days to sit sipping gin and tonics and waiting for more craziness and wild adventures that never quite materialize. In the end, Namo and I probably stayed one day too long. Four days was enough to get some good sun, meet some interesting people, and find the good nightclubs, the bad clubs, and, accidentally, the gay clubs; five days was enough to drink a little too much, sunburn a little too much, meet too many strangers, and get a few too many of our belongings stolen. We left Fort Lauderdale as we left New England--under cloudy skies.
On the road again we found a better placebo for our restlessness. Driving on an interstate for more than 24 hours broke down our notions of distance and days. Over such a long distance we could not think of destinations or of schedules, only of driving. Traveling up the East Coast at night in a rented car at 70 miles per hour became a state of being--the hum of the tires, the turning of the passengers asleep in the back seat, the constant mirror check for state police, the dashboard light casting eerie shadows across the driver's face, the A.M. radio pulling in music from Nashville, New York City, Tulsa, Cleveland, Savannah. The mirage of Fort Lauderdale was far behind, left to reform in the distance. For now anyway, we were in motion, and that was enough