"Lars Eighner is the Thoreau of the Dumpsters. Comparisons to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Hamsun's Hunger leap to mind. A classic of down-and-out literature." Phillip Lopate
When Travels with Lizbeth was first published in 1993, it was proclaimed an instant classic. Lars Eighner's account of his descent into homelessness and his adventures on the streets has moved, charmed, and amused generations of readers. As Lars wrote, "When I began writing this account I was living under a shower curtain in a stand of bamboo in a public park. I did not undertake to write about homelessness, but wrote what I knew, as an artist paints a still life, not because he is especially fond of fruit, but because the subject is readily at hand."
Containing the widely anthologized essay "On Dumpster Diving," Travels with Lizbeth is a beautifully written account of one man's experience of homelessness, a story of physical survival, and the triumph of the artistic spirit in the face of enormous adversity. In his unique voicedry, disciplined, poignant, comicEighner celebrates the companionship of his dog, Lizbeth, and recounts their ongoing struggle to survive on the streets of Austin, Texas, and hitchhiking along the highways to Southern California and back.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.72(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
LARS EIGHNER was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. In 1988 he and his dog Lizbeth became homeless, and their experiences over the following three years were recorded in Travels with Lizbeth, which became a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, and includes the often-cited essay "On Dumpster Diving." His other works include numerous story collections and a comic novel. He now lives in Austin with his partner.
Read an Excerpt
Austin to Tucson: Hitting the Road
Billy inelegantly brought his little black Scirocco about and drove back toward Austin. That car was Billy’s shibboleth; he never learned to pronounce its name although he was frequently corrected by parts dealers, his mechanic, and me. Never mind. In Billy’s mind it was a Porsche and that was the way he drove it.
There we were, Lizbeth the bitch and I, with a pile of gear I could carry only a few yards at a time, by the side of the road in what seemed to me to be a desolate area. I had not been to the desert yet.
At that moment I had my first doubts that moving to California was the best idea I had ever had and that my plans were entirely adequate.
My plans, so far as they went, were in three parts.
My friend Rufus was in prison in Las Vegas on a charge of “gross and public lewdness”—a picturesque title for a crime, I thought. He had propositioned a minor, but as it was known that the minor was a prostitute, Rufus had been allowed to plead to the lesser charge. He was due to be released soon—exactly when, I was not sure—and he had mentioned in writing that I might visit him and his benefactor, an older man I had never met, at their home in La Puente, California.
I could see from my map that La Puente was not so far from Los Angeles. Rufus always seemed happy to see me and owed me some hospitality. But as I stood by the side of the road it occurred to me that Rufus had nothing of his own and perhaps his companion, who owed me nothing, would not be so happy to see me.
The second part of my plan was to obtain a position with one of the gay men’s magazines that had bought my short stories. I had been writing short stories for the gay men’s market for about five years. A collection of my stories had been published and had been a critical success. One of the magazines in Southern California had recently advertised in its own pages for an assistant editor, and thinking myself exceptionally qualified for such work, I had sent a résumé. That periodical had not had time to respond, but I took the fact of the advertisement as evidence that the demand for literary talent was brisk in the Los Angeles area.
By the side of the road I reflected on my lack of experience in layout, copy fitting, and all the other aspects of magazine work, except copy- and proofreading. But I was just as willing to start in the mail room.
My third thought was to seek a position working with PWAs (people with AIDS). For this I had fifteen years of related work experience. I had kept books and filed tax forms for a nonprofit eleemosynary corporation, I had maintained medical records, I had stalked the elusive third-party payment, I had wrestled with budgets and written parts of proposals, I had tiptoed—not always successfully—through the minefield of alternative agency collective decision-making, I had directed a suicide-prevention and drug-crisis center, I had carried bedpans and changed linens on occupied beds, and I had ruthlessly manipulated other agencies into providing the services they were supposed to provide for my clients. I thought if there were any order in the universe at all, I had been provided with this particular combination of skills and experience to be of some use in the AIDS crisis.
The only drawback I could see here was that in Southern California such work would probably entail lots of sensitivity training, encounter groups, and similar things that always make me want to throw up.
Perhaps the idea of moving to California was not so wonderful after all, but remaining in Austin certainly offered no better prospects.
By exploiting the formalities of the eviction process, I might have remained in the little shack on Avenue B a few weeks longer. But I had been without a job for almost a year. The shack had changed hands in the height of Austin’s real estate boom. My new landlord had taken out an enormous loan to acquire the property and was in no position to extend me any more credit.
I had resigned from the state lunatic asylum under threat of being fired. I had always been in trouble at the asylum, for the humane published policies of the institution conflict with the abusive habits of some of the staff, and I often found myself in an unpopular position. But in the event, I was in trouble for complaining of being assigned to vegetative patients who had been warehoused at the institution since birth. That was not the work I had been hired to do and I found it emetic.
I sought work elsewhere. I knew I could do many things that might turn a profit for anyone who would employ me. But I had no documentary evidence of my skills. I had made a point of attending staff-development classes at the asylum. Those classes qualified me for more advanced positions at the asylum but provided me with no credentials that would be accepted elsewhere. My previous experience had been with a so-called alternative agency that did not believe in documents of any sort. What I knew of computers and electronics I had learned as a hobbyist. I had qualified as a first-class radio-television engineer, but my FCC license had not proved useful when I first got it and had long since lapsed. I knew I could write, but whenever I learned of a position for a staff writer, the position required a college degree, which I did not have.
I went to the state unemployment commission. In past years when I had been unemployed the commission had provided me with inappropriate referrals. Now it was too swamped to do even that. The bust had hit Austin. Only those who claimed unemployment compensation could see a counselor. I did not qualify for unemployment compensation because I had resigned my last position, and it would have been the same if I had been fired for cause. Since I was not a drain on the state fund, I would not get any help in looking for a job.
As for public assistance, it is like credit—easier to get if you have had it before. That you have qualified for one sort of benefit is often taken as evidence that you are eligible for another. Documents from one agency are accepted as proof of need at another agency. But as I had never received any form of public assistance before, I had no documents. When I was asked to provide documents to prove I had no income, I could not do so. I still do not know how to prove lack of income.
The private charities had organized a clearing house, originally under the direction of the Catholic Church and still dominated by it. There I was told plainly that having neglected to produce children I could not support, I was disqualified for any benefit. Single men, I was told, were persons of sacred worth, but if only I could come up with a few mewling little wretches, illegitimate would do, then something might be done for me.
Sadly I had neglected to become addicted to drugs or alcohol and had not committed a serious crime. Rehabilitation was out of the question. But some hope was held out if I were to become maimed before funds ran out in that category.
Wherever I went I noticed an enormously fat blond woman, at least twice my size, with two screaming, undernourished brats. She fared better than I at the public and private agencies; they could hardly do enough for her. The waifs were about three and five years of age. The peculiar thing was they were never the same children. She had a different pair with her every day. So I must assume she had at least sixteen children under the age of six, and I can hardly begrudge her all the assistance she received.
I continued to write and to send my stories to the gay magazines that had bought them in the past. I had not yet learned to write when I was uninspired, and at three cents a word, paid six to eight months after I had finished a story, I could not make a living, though I sold all the stories I wrote.
Nearly every block in Hyde Park, as my neighborhood in Austin was called, had at least one foreclosure sign. The banks and the savings and loans were beginning to go belly up. The bust might not have been so bad if it had not been for the boom. Once, Austin had many old roomy houses that were inhabited by musicians and artists, students, punks, and latter-day hippies. The rents were low and such households stayed afloat so long as the law of averages prevented all of the occupants being out of work at once. Years before I had survived in Austin on a low income by living in such places. But during the boom many of these old houses were replaced with condos. When the bust hit, the condos went into receivership and housed no one.
As I watched the vacant condos deteriorate I understood the depression stories, stories that always seemed incredible to me, of people waiting in lines for thin soup while food rotted on the docks.
Going to California seemed to me to be something I could do, and I wanted to do something rather than to wait for the sheriff to come to put my things on the street. As I stood by the side of the road, weighing the uncertainties, I wondered whether the urge to do something had not led me to do the wrong thing.
While I had my second thoughts about our traveling to California, Lizbeth became fascinated by the sheep.
The eastern extreme of the Edwards plateau, where Billy had let us out, consists of small rolling limestone hills with grasses, low shrubs, and even the occasional tree. While hardly the picture of fertility, such land can support life as we know it, to wit: sheep, deer, and less-fortunate cattle.
I walked Lizbeth to the fence. The sheep did not tarry. Nonetheless Lizbeth found many smellworthy things and I did not hurry her. I took off my heavy jacket. Billy and I had agreed that I should get an early start, but in the way such things go with Billy, it was afternoon when he dropped Lizbeth and me by the road. Although the date was January 20, 1988, the sky was bright and clear and the temperature would reach into the eighties.
I counted the change in my pocket: less than a quarter, mostly in pennies. I smoked one of Billy’s cigarettes. I arranged the gear and tightened the straps. I knew I was overpacked. Having never been to the desert before, I discarded the three-liter plastic Coke bottle filled with water which fit nowhere because Billy had suggested it at the last moment. I did have a canteen.
I made Lizbeth sit up on things where she could be seen. Then there was nothing to do except to begin hitchhiking. My sign read: TO L.A. WITH DOG. I did not want people to stop and then decline to take Lizbeth when they discovered her.
The problem was to get to the interstate.
Interstate 10, which goes to Los Angeles, runs northwest from San Antonio. We were on Highway 290, which to the east of Austin is a major highway joining the state’s largest city to its capital, but to the west, where we were, goes 143 miles to meet the interstate in the middle of nowhere. There is little traffic and most of it is local. A local in a pickup with farm plates gave us a ride of less than five miles. Lizbeth rode in the cab. We were let out on a curve, just over a rise, so anyone going our way could not see us until he was as good as past us.
I had a large, square backpack that contained close to twenty-five pounds of dog food and some other odds and ends. Tied to the bottom of the pack was a bedroll consisting of a large comforter and several blankets wrapped around a hospital scrub suit and a large, heavy caftan that had been made for me by the former housemate who had brought Lizbeth, as a puppy, into the shack on Avenue B. The backpack would have been a load for me in any event, but the lack of a frame made it all the more unwieldy. I could only get the pack on my back by reclining on it, hooking my arms through the straps, and thrashing my limbs like a supine cockroach to right myself.
Besides the backpack there was also a rollbag in a trendy color that I found with several like it in a Dumpster behind a gift shop, the lot having been discarded, I soon discovered, because their nylon zippers were wholly inadequate. In addition, I had hooked another, smaller bookbag through the handles of the rollbag. I had also the heavy pea jacket I had been wearing, which I laid along the length of the rollbag.
Thus the most efficient way to move a few hundred yards was to leapfrog the various pieces of luggage a few score yards at a time until everything was past the first highway sign, which I supposed had been placed with some regard for its visibility. The move being made, it was still many hours until we got another ride. This was Wednesday and on a weekday most of the local traffic was single women, whom one never expects to stop. Late enough in the afternoon that he had already got off work in Austin, an electrician in a pickup stopped and again Lizbeth rode in the cab.
In this part of Texas it is often difficult to distinguish unreformed hippies from country types of about the same age, and indeed they are often the same. This driver had a great bushy red beard and recalled hitchhiking with a dog in the late Sixties, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps this was the first ride Lizbeth got for us. The driver offered me a part of a tiny roach and was surprised I did not smoke marijuana.
I had shaved closely that morning and had been given for the trip an excellent short haircut by a former companion who was a professional hairdresser. Perhaps anyone of my obvious age and station was to be presumed to smoke marijuana. I had forced myself to smoke it for a number of years, but I always found it dysphoric and at last learned to refuse it in spite of the social consequences. The driver went a few miles out of his way to leave us in Johnson City.
We were let out at a Circle K, one of a chain of convenience stores found throughout the Southwest. The clerk let me water Lizbeth from the tap at the side of the building. I refreshed myself at the same time.
Eventually a semitrailer stopped and I gathered up my gear, but the driver meant only to go into the store. Having got the gear together, I decided to walk to the outskirts of town. Sunset was approaching and several carloads of local youth had already yelled insults at me. I could see from the increasing speed-limit signs that I was near the edge of town. I hoped to find an inconspicuous spot to lay out the bedroll.
We had gone only a few blocks when a young couple in an old car offered us a ride. They whispered among themselves as if there were some reason besides ordinary etiquette not to invite me to join the party. From the way the male spoke, hardly able to pack enough words into a sentence, I would guess the reason was methamphetamines.
They are popular drugs in Central Texas and the labs are often located in the country because the synthesis is very smelly. However that may be, this ride put Lizbeth and me far enough out in the country that I might lay out the bedroll without fear of being disturbed. I sat on the gear and wrote a postcard in the last moments of twilight.
Then Lizbeth got us the first ride I am sure she was responsible for. A man, perhaps in his fifties, said he had passed us and seen the dog and come back for us. He drove us to his home in Fredricksburg. His wife, he told me, worked in a veterinary clinic in Austin and they both rather fancied dogs. This last I might have concluded for myself. They had, it turned out, four house dogs of various sizes and many yard dogs.
Lizbeth does not suffer other dogs to come near me, but this problem was evidently not new to my hosts for they had an improvised system of runs and gates so that Lizbeth could be accommodated and fed by herself.
This couple lived with the aged female parent of one of them. She reminded me of all the wives of my granduncles in that it was impossible to tell whether she was becoming senile or simply had always been a nitwit. My granduncles, I have always supposed, chose fluff-brained flappers in reaction to my grandaunts-by-blood, who were intelligent and levelheaded, if not domineering and obstinate. I was given dinner of chicken à la king of a sort, based on Miracle Whip. I remarked on how beautiful Fredricksburg is, speaking from memory because I had hardly seen any of it in the dark. I related the story of my grandmother’s Germans.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, an association of German princes in hopes of eliminating poverty deported large numbers of poor people, some of them to the Texas coast. Although this was supposed to be colonization, in fact the people were more or less dumped on the shore, sometimes by shipwreck, but inadequately provisioned at best. Malaria was then very common on the Texas coast and the immigrant population was decimated many times over. The Germans moved inland and settled in various parts of Central Texas. Fredricksburg was one of these settlements. This much of the story any native knows. Few, however, know of the orphan colony. A large band of children removed afoot from the coast to Fredricksburg, but there is no historical record of how they made their way.
The research was done before I could remember, but a central fact of my childhood, aside from the boxes of bond paper, typewriter erasers, eraser shields, and the upright Underwood, was my grandmother’s composition of her book-length narrative poem that told how the children may have made it and then followed them up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Grandmother was no hearts-and-flowers old-lady poet, and some parts of her work were thought too racy for me when I was younger. I never read the manuscript when I was older. But I became perfectly familiar with the historic bones of the plot.
I should say this was my maternal grandmother, who, so far as I know, had no particular reason to choose this subject except that it seemed to her a good one. My own surname, if it is German, has no Texas connection.
Unfortunately my hosts, although they listened to my story patiently enough, were not natives and could not amplify any of the details. They agreed that Fredricksburg is beautiful—the oldest stone buildings being picturesque and pristine not so much for restoration as for maintenance. The gentleman agreed to drive us to the interstate. By the time we left, Lizbeth was frantic. She had never been away from her puppyhood home before and the separation from me and the presence of all the other dogs left her in a dither. She jumped from the backseat into my lap and licked me wherever she could reach until we were let out.
I thought we were let out at the junction of Highway 290 and I-10, sixty-three miles to the west of Fredricksburg. But in fact we had been taken twenty-three miles due south where I-10 passes through Comfort, Texas. The difference on I-10 was one mile more than the Pythagorean sixty-seven miles, but at least we had made it to the road that went right through to L.A. We might even get a ride all the way. But not that night.
No cars were using the entrance ramp. We walked along the ramp, but when we reached the highway there were no lights and the night was dark and moonless. We could not be seen. I was tired. I had not slept much the night before. The frontage road was above our heads and on it was a well-lit auto dealership. Beyond that was darkness and perhaps a place to sleep. With some difficulty Lizbeth and I scaled the grassy incline to the frontage road. Here was a guard rail. Lizbeth would not go under it, nor could she jump over it. To lift her over the rail I had to remove the backpack or else its weight would have dumped me over.
Past the auto dealership on the frontage road we found a curious little grassy spot. Even in the morning I could not make out what it was. It was landscaped. A gravel road looped around it but did not go off anywhere. I did not really care what it was except that it seemed unlikely we would be disturbed there for the rest of the night. I laid out the bedroll, put on the heavy caftan, and crawled in.
Naturally Lizbeth crawled into the bedroll too, but she found it too cold at her usual station behind my knees. She got under the caftan and wiggled up until her nose just stuck out of the neckhole. This might have been cozy enough except that she detected the security guard at the auto dealership whenever he made his rounds. She barked.
As concealment seemed to me the most logical first strategy in providing for our safety, I was concerned that I could hardly control Lizbeth, although the guard never came closer to us than a couple of hundred yards. Discovery where we were might not have been so bad, but I thought surely we would come to times that our survival would depend upon Lizbeth’s not giving away our position. I got little sleep. We were up at first light. After the burst of hope and energy that comes with dawn, my mood sharply declined. Getting the pack on my back had been a struggle when I first tried it. Now moving at all was becoming difficult.
Lizbeth would not eat. I dumped most of her food. Twenty-five pounds was more than she would eat in a month. Of course she would not eat that morning because she had gorged herself the night before in Fredricksburg—our hosts had mixed meat in with her food. She would not be hungry enough to eat plain, dry dog food for a day or two, although she would be happy to have any little scrap of human food she could get. I knew her eating habits as well then as I know them now. But at the time I took her refusal to eat as a vote of no confidence. I do not think I was mistaken in perceiving a number of quizzical looks from her quarter.
I discarded my boots next. Although I walked a great deal in town and the boots were broken in perfectly well, they were not the thing for the road. Everyone advises the traveler to wear sensible shoes, and I have not found a better piece of advice.
We were in Comfort for most of the day. Several other hitchhikers appeared and got rides. I got a short ride late in the afternoon and made five dollars in the process. The driver offered to let me out at a rest stop or to drive me a few miles farther. As I did not then know the advantages of hitchhiking from a rest area, I asked to be driven the few miles farther.
We were let off at a crossover near the little town of Mountain Home. Here the median of the interstate expanded to several hundred yards and there were several shady trees. I left our gear under a tree and Lizbeth and I walked over the crossover to a store the last driver had said would be there.
It was a little country store with sparsely stocked, unfinished wood shelves. They were discontinuing cigarettes and had only a few stale packs of unfiltered Camels. I bought two packs and a Big Red, a caffeine-laced cream soda popular in Oklahoma and Texas, and I watered Lizbeth from the hose outside. Thursday afternoon had become very warm.
We returned to the tree where I had stashed our gear and I drank the Big Red and wrote a letter to Billy. Then I tried thumbing until dark, but it was useless.
I still do not know whether it is better to have a sign or not, if it is worth the effort of standing all the while, whether to look as presentable as possible or to try to appear down on my luck. I think perhaps none of that matters. Many, many people still pass by.
I was not so discouraged that night when I decided it was time to lie down. I was better off than when the day had started. I had smokes and some change in my pocket.
About dark we walked back on a little rise through which the road cut. When we were about sixteen feet above the road I decided to stop. I dropped the gear, left Lizbeth strapped to the gear, and raced another twenty or thirty yards.
When you live out of Dumpsters, dysentery is an occasional fact of life, although it is less frequent in cool weather. I had eaten nothing save the chicken à la king since we left Austin, but the day before that I had eaten some suspicious Dumpster pizza. In the middle of nowhere the result was inconvenient. In the city, as I had yet to discover, intestinal distress and the dearth of truly public rest rooms provide a number of unpretty options.
I had a magazine-premium battery-powered radio. From it I got enough of a weather report to hear that a low of twenty-eight degrees was expected somewhere, but the station faded before I learned its location. Suddenly Lizbeth broke loose from her moorings and ran across the rise. A white tail disappeared over a fence. Lizbeth had discovered deer.
* * *
FRIDAY MORNING WAS overcast with high clouds. The grass was very dewy and, in patches, frosty. Because I was bigger and stronger I eventually dislodged Lizbeth from the bedroll. As we were up at first light, I believe I had packed and we were down at the road before sunrise. Very many semitrailers passed us. I tipped my cap or waved at most of them and a few of them sounded their horns. So far as I know, no trucker has ever done me any good in my travels, but I had heard it was a good idea to be friendly toward the truckers, so I was. Lizbeth curled up on the gear and shivered. I hate it when she shivers.
Quite soon, although at the time it seemed not so soon, we got another ride. I did not notice him until he had passed us and stopped and honked his horn.
The old pickup was very battered, mostly lime green, with a Florida license plate taped in the rear window of the cab. It sat on the shoulder under the crossover some two or three hundred yards beyond us. As fast as I could move with all the gear was hardly more than a brisk walk, even with Lizbeth towing me as hard she was able. The truck did not pull away as sometimes happens in these situations. The cab was nearly full of gear and delicately balanced arrangements for brewing coffee with power from the cigarette lighter. The bed of the pickup was loaded with exactly what all I never discovered, but Lizbeth would have to ride there.
Lizbeth is a fool. Off her leash she cannot be trusted not to dart out into traffic. In the last couple of days she had ridden more than she had in her whole life before and she had never been in the back of a pickup alone. I tied her leash to the hub of a loose spare tire in the bed of the pickup.
It was far from clear that she could not hang herself by jumping overboard or be lost over the side by slipping her collar. There was not room for me to ride with her. I worried about her constantly for she rode standing on various objects and precariously balanced. The worst was when we would overtake a livestock truck. She clearly appreciated only the very slight relative motion of the vehicles and gave every appearance of being willing to dash herself against the slats of the livestock trucks, just as she might jump against a stationary fence.
The driver’s story was that he had been a couple of years in Florida with a girlfriend, but the relationship had gone sour. So he was returning to Tucson, his hometown, and a previous girlfriend.
To Tucson seemed quite a ways and I was very much encouraged. I had pored over the map without absorbing many facts of geography. I thought, for example, that the continental divide was somewhere in California, rather near the San Gabriel Mountains. I was not entirely sure how far I would have got when I reached Tucson, but from the mile markers I could see this ride would put at least five hundred miles of Texas behind me.
We stopped fairly soon at a rest stop. I scraped a razor over my face, washed my neck and forearms, and since I had a ride already, changed into my most ragged jeans. The driver wanted to be sure that Lizbeth was walked. She seldom wants walking more than twice a day. But I welcomed the chance to lash her to the tire again, this time with much less slack. Nonetheless, she managed to get up and about and to keep my heart in my throat for the rest of the ride.
The last of the grass and the trees petered out a little past Junction, Texas, and then for many miles there was nothing except what is called cedar in Austin but elsewhere is known as juniper scrub. This is a long and desolate stretch, but what is more, the few wretched settlements that exist are several miles from the highway and no cafés, gas stations, or even tourist traps are visible from the road. I was set to work brewing coffee. The driver was well into his second day on the road, without stopping and had no intention of resting until he reached Tucson. Again I was offered a part of a roach from the ashtray, but once it was clear I had no interest in marijuana, I was given the job of rolling joints for the driver from a stash in a Bull Durham bag. We did not talk much. The driver was determined to coax something out of the radio. For the most part we got static and whenever he did pick up something he overpowered his speakers so the result to me was little different from static.
I was suitably impressed by the mountains as we got to them. I had seldom seen mountains and never such as these, young and rising from a treeless landscape.
It was another hot day and we were climbing. The temperature gauge in the old pickup read hot, but the driver insisted it was stuck. We pulled into Las Cruces to get gas and the radiator blew.
The cap is supposed to blow first, just as a safety valve on a boiler blows before the boiler reaches the bursting point. But this cap had not. Yet as the steam dissipated and things cooled off, it appeared the radiator had only split a seam. A welder was found who would draw a bead down the seam for seven dollars.
This exhausted our folding cash and I was set to the task of sorting through the driver’s change pot. There was enough for a couple of packs of cigarettes and, perhaps, gasoline to get to Tucson. I had about three quarters besides of my own, which I did not mention. We would press on.
As we pulled out of the service station in Las Cruces, Lizbeth finally managed to hang herself, but inadequately. She was attempting to get from the back of the pickup to the cab window. I made a bed for her in the hub of the spare tire and then lashed her to it again with as little slack as I thought possible. Night was falling and I knew it would be cold. I hoped she would nest in the tire. Of course she did not. I was set back to square one in worrying about her. I became accustomed to the shadow of her head in the lights of the vehicles that overtook us, only to be alarmed again by the absence of the shadow when she finally fell asleep.
The sun set as we passed Vail, Arizona. We were climbing again. The driver explained that Tucson was in a box canyon and if we reached the top of this climb we could coast into town. This was far from an idle observation, for fuel was precariously low. Eventually the truck did make it to the top and it was all downhill from there.
The driver let us off about 9:00 P.M. at a truck stop south of town. I have since learned that this was a famous truck stop and elegantly appointed as these things go, but I had no chance of learning that firsthand. Immediately Lizbeth sat on a prickly pear and thus struck the keynote of our tenure in Tucson.
The shoulder of the frontage road was under construction for as far ahead as I could see. That would pose a problem in getting away from the truck stop.
I know now what I should have done. I should have found a dark spot and gone to sleep. Our situation did not appear to me to be good, but it was far from desperate and unlikely to deteriorate overnight. “Things will look brighter in the morning” was the sort of adage I always sneered at. Now I was to learn it was valuable advice and in Tucson it was a dear lesson. A long ride is such a piece of luck that one is tempted to try to press on before fortune shows its other face. I suppose that was why I hoped to get farther that night. But instead, Lizbeth and I were fallen upon by thieves.
A young Latin man distracted me with some discussion that I never understood. I was holding Lizbeth and we were not more than twenty feet from our gear. When I turned to the gear, it was gone, and when I turned again, so was the young man.
His confederates must have had a car, for there was no other way they could have made such a pile of gear disappear in so short a time. Naturally, I had laid my heavy coat on the bundle.
I find it hard to believe that anyone would have thought I had anything of much value. My clothes, besides being worn, would not fit many other people, and this should have been obvious to look at me. The little radio was of no appreciable value. Besides my papers, most of the bulk of what was taken was the remainder of Lizbeth’s food and the bedding, which was warm enough, but could not have been sold. Other than a few dollars in postage, nothing could have been readily converted to cash. I was left with what I was wearing, a football practice jersey and my most ragged pair of jeans, and Lizbeth.
My mistake, besides not getting us out of harm’s way after dark, was in not lashing Lizbeth to the gear the minute I set it down. While Lizbeth is harmless, most people would require some time to discover the fact and in the meanwhile she would make noise.
Tired and disheartened, I sat by a telephone pole, and in spite of the cold I must have dozed sitting up.
When I awoke I discovered a further disaster. Lizbeth had curled up at the base of the telephone pole, and cold as it was, she had heated the tar on the pole until it flowed all over her back. Clearly no one would want this mess in his vehicle. When the sun rose I saw it was even worse than it had first appeared.
My own stamps and envelopes had gone with our gear. But just before I left Austin, Billy gave me a whole book of stamps with a face value of $4.40, which I had put in my wallet. By chance the wallet was in my jeans and not in the pocket of the coat that had been stolen.
Billy had told me his phone credit card number and I used it to call a bookstore that was listed in the copied pages of a gay travelers’ guide that Billy had given me with the stamps. I supposed the bookstore was a gay one, and in my experience these little stores, which are not to be confused with adult bookstores, take a proprietary interest in their authors. The clerk I spoke to, however, seemed less than gracious and only grudgingly agreed to give me cash for the stamps. My object was to buy some rubbing alcohol to clean the tar off Lizbeth’s back.
The immediate problem was to get to the bookstore.
South Tucson consists of huts and shacks and sand dunes, with here and there the occasional obvious federal housing project. It is unremittingly barren and ugly. There are few improvements of any kind. Street signs are restricted to the housing projects where they identify various stravs. Using the dictionaries of several languages, I have been unable to discover what a strav is, and have concluded that it is a compromise between street and avenue.
South Tucson simply has no sidewalks. I thought at first this was merely in keeping with the general wretchedness of the place, but eventually it seemed to me that the public policy in Tucson is to impede pedestrians as much as possible. In particular, I could find no way to walk to the main part of town in the north except in the traffic lanes of narrow highway ramps.
I could not believe this at first, and Lizbeth and I spent several hours wandering on the south bank of the dry gash that divides Tucson as I looked for a walkway. More than anywhere we have been, adults like teenagers shouted threats as well as insults at us in Tucson, and did so whether I was trying to hitchhike or was merely walking. More than one man found it necessary to brandish a firearm at us although we were afoot and presented no conceivable threat to those cruising past us at upward of fifty miles per hour. This atmosphere did not make the walk across the high ramp in the traffic lane any less exciting.
The usual medium in Tucson for vulgar displays of wealth appeared to be the conspicuous and wasteful consumption of water. As we walked north things got greener and more affluent. The ritziest neighborhoods were positively swamplike. Lizbeth could drink from the runoff of the sprinkler systems that ran throughout the heat of the day. Still, there were no continuous sidewalks.
Perhaps the bookstore was no more than seven miles north of the gorge, but it was late in the afternoon when Lizbeth and I got there. The bookstore was not of the sort I expected. It was not after all a little gay bookstore, but was a very large general-interest bookstore with a gay-interest section.
The clerk took the book of stamps and said he would have to check with the owner, although I mentioned having phoned earlier. I suppose they counted the stamps each and every one, for it was some time before he returned to give me $4.40. I noticed that a couple of magazines that contained my stories were on display behind the counter, over the clerk’s head.
I took the money to a nearby drugstore to get some rubbing alcohol.
If I had then had a better grasp of the geography I might have saved us considerable trouble and heartbreak. The bookstore was not so very far to the east of the interstate. But as we had crossed the gorge, the interstate appeared to veer off sharply to the west. I thought the nearest point of the highway was in the south, and to the south we returned.
We were quite in darkness by the time we crossed the gorge again. Lizbeth could no longer walk.
We were far enough west now that convenience stores no longer had faucets and hoses on the outside. I went into a convenience store and bought a gallon of water. I returned to Lizbeth and carried her a few feet from the road, behind a sand dune.
I would never have thought a stout middle-aged man could outwalk a healthy young dog. I have since learned I cannot expect much more than five miles a day out of Lizbeth on a consistent basis, and then only when conditions are favorable. In Tucson conditions are not favorable. Without sidewalks or grass, she had walked on cinders, sand, and rocks. The trip to the bookstore had worn the pads off her paws.
Copyright © 1993, 2013 by Lars Eighner
Table of Contents
1 Austin to Tucson: Hitting the Road 1
2 Tucson to La Puente: The Desert Rat 22
3 Los Angeles: Pounding the Pavement 43
4 San Gabriels and Hollywood 67
5 To Austin 82
6 Temporary Arrangements 101
7 On Dumpster Diving 117
8 Summer in Austin: Dog Days on the Street 133
9 Phlebitis: At the Public Hospital 148
10 Alcohol, Drugs, and Insanity 168
11 On Institutional Parasitism 182
12 Eviction 196
13 Daniel 210
14 Lizbeth on Death Row 216
15 To Hollywood Again 231
16 In the Bamboo 254
17 A Roof over Our Heads 272