Long as I Can See the Light


“Truckin’, got my chips cashed in, Keep truckin’, like the doo-dah man…”

I still get a little car-sick when I hear that song. Or even recall that song. [Pause here, to stop thinking about that damn song…]

Is it because the radio played it incessantly, that November of 1970? No. Is it because the whole damned band – who would have remained nameless, in a sane world – couldn’t carry a tune? No. Is it because – even though I was 18 at the time – I’m now a curmudgeon, a fuddy-duddy? Uh, no. It’s because the first few thousand times I heard it, I was in their van. With them.

I had slept the daylight away for most of a week, once back from New York, at my parents’ house in Maryland. I was crushed, left behind by the man I loved. (“Love” is defined in this particular context as “a life-threateningly intense obsession with an inappropriate object of romance on the part of an extraordinarily foolish young person.”) I would wake long enough to dedicate candle-lit midnight offerings of teenage-angst poetry to the god of false hopes. Then I’d go back to sleep.

Finally, though, I ventured out to visit friends at The House, in Takoma Park. I went there looking for relief. Refuge, maybe. Familiarity. Peace. Acoustic guitars. Incense and pot smoke. Any good reason to face the sun again, and maybe even to smile.

But things had changed in the couple of months I’d been away.

I found The House in a speed-freak frenzy: a skinny teenage girl with bruises on her arms, furiously scrubbing an ashtray as she sat cross-legged on a filthy mattress; a man splashing wet-on-wet paint murals of his nightmares on the living room wall; a man, his motorcycle in a thousand parts on the floor, frantic to find the missing piece; a man obsessively sanding his guitar until he wore a hole in it; a man in the bathroom shooting up, and spraying his own blood in a rainbow arc on the wall.

And them.

One of them asked if I wanted to get down. Yes, I’d like that – to go somewhere else, far away from the screeching anxiety of The House. So I held out my arm, and turned my head away.

Warm water rushed over my head, and my shoulders relaxed. Everything around me was calm, without worry. My body didn’t matter anymore, or my thoughts, or my feelings. I was an innocent again, asleep in Daddy’s arms, being carried to my bed. He lay me down gently, and I fell floating, as the cradle slowly rocked me into the underworld of dreamless dark. Where shadows may be, but memories are not.

When I came around, I was cold, alone on the front porch steps. I got up, shivering, and left. And never saw The House people again.

Unfortunately, I left in their van. With them. And went truckin’, from strange place to stranger place, between trips to the underworld.

They were twenty-somethings from rough, working-class neighborhoods nearby. Their “work” was not the manual labor or factory jobs of their fathers; it consisted entirely and exclusively of looking to cop downers (heroin, reds, morphine, dilaudid), hitting up when downers were copped, talking about copping downers, and talking about doing downers.

They were Miracle, Tony, and Doc. Plus two or three other guys whose faces I can’t remember and whose names I never bothered to learn.

Miracle, with the greasy bandana on his long black hair, was their leader. “Miracle” was a malapropism of his surname, but it seemed he liked the power it implied. I was mostly quiet in those days, just watching things unfold and not sure what to think, let alone say, about what I was seeing. But if I did say something, anything, Miracle would ask – his question addressed to his audience, not to me – “What part o’ Bethesda you from?” And the others would laugh appreciatively, as expected, at the clever insight of Miracle’s rhetorical question. “Bethesda,” I knew, was short-hand for “educated,” or “rich.” Or maybe just “uppity.”

Tony was a damaged can of something dangerous, swollen with pressure, and none of us wanted to open that thing if we could avoid it. He looked like a rust-haired version of Einstein or Twain, with the big mustache but without the wit. He was forever challenging the others to fight over imagined slights (fights that never happened). He claimed me as his, which I never understood since I had not the least interest in him, but I never openly disputed it for fear of an explosion. I felt sorry for him, actually. It seemed to me that I was his only possession and we both knew, on some level, that I was not his at all, so the whole charade was strange, stupid, and sad.

Long-bearded Doc, with the John-Lennon spectacles, earned his name (I assumed) because he wore glasses, usually carried a book, and was the only one in the group who could string a proper sentence together. Later I learned that Doc was short for Witch Doctor because he read tarot cards. That was the first time I’d seen or heard of tarot cards, so I was interested. But every time Doc tried to show me the cards – in fact, every time he talked to me or even looked at me – Tony would threaten to beat him up. Neither Doc nor I wanted to see that happen, so we laid back. “Peace, man, peace,” Doc would say as he backed away.

One late night I found myself waiting, at Louie’s house. Louie was someone they copped from, sometimes, and that night he was waiting for his man to deliver reds. Tony and Miracle were in and out, but mostly the others waiting in the living room were people I’d never met. One teenage boy smoked PCP and started wailing that he wanted his mommy. I was embarrassed for him, and made a mental note never to try PCP. At one point two little kids came downstairs in their pajamas and sat at the kitchen table, saying they were hungry. I wondered if they even had a mother; certainly Louie was paying no attention to them. Eventually one of the young women who was waiting with the rest of us got up and found some breakfast cereal and milk for them. I saw a glass prism on one of Louie’s lamps that I liked, so I took it and hooked it on as an earring. I was bored senseless, and was thinking of walking out, never mind that it was the middle of the night and I didn’t know where I was. But then the man arrived, and people got down to business.

Louie, Tony, and I were in the back bedroom. Louie hit up with a speedball, and then was shaking so badly that I considered refusing to let him touch me. But … I did. I let him.

Occasionally I surfaced from unconsciousness, just enough to know I was still breathing. … Breathe in. Breathe out. … I was lying on the bed, and Tony was on top of me saying, “Wake up” and “I love you.” … Breathe in. Breathe out. … I was still on my back, and Louie was on top of me saying, “It’s okay, man. She’s awake.” … Breathe in. Breathe out. … Tony was back again, tears running down his face. … Breathe in. Breathe out. … I was getting confused about what was happening to me, so I knew I wasn’t dead. … Breathe in. Breathe out. …

I don’t remember how long I was there at Louie’s, when I left, or how I left. I just remember that my arm was red, and it itched. That I was annoyed at Tony and never wanted to see Louie again. And that Miracle said they were going up to the country, to Pennsylvania. “To get our heads together,” he said.

So I got in the van, and we headed north. It would be too strong a word to say that I made a “plan,” on the way, but by the time we got there I had the half-conscious realization that I wasn’t going to hang out with them anymore. The couple of weeks I’d been with them seemed like the longest year of my life. Maybe I would stay in the country for awhile? As it happened, we ended up in Berks County, where my German ancestors had built stone houses like the one we were in, and where I had gone to boarding school the year before. Or maybe I would just split? I only knew that life would become interesting again. Away from them.

Apparently the others were up all night, but I slept in an upstairs bedroom till sometime the next morning. When I woke I went down to an idyllic hippie-commune scene. The woman was cooking a big breakfast, there were kittens playing on her kitchen floor, and everybody else was hanging out in the living room. Sun was pouring in the windows. Everything had changed, and I was so glad to be coming up from wherever it was that I had been.

Doc was sitting in the middle of the floor, his back to me and his tarot cards in front of him. But he heard me come in, and announced to the room that he was going to do a reading for me. Um … Where was Tony? Why was he not threatening to punch Doc in the face? Mysteriously, we didn’t care. It was as if they all sensed that something was over. So I sat next to Doc, carefree, as he laid out the cards for me.

“Ah! You are the virgin queen,” Doc said. “Some may believe that you have been dragged down, and will never find your way back from darkness. But that is not the truth. You know who you are, and where you belong. You are untouched. You are intact.”

The moment, the very second Doc finished telling me this, the front door was kicked in. By men with guns.

The men with guns were from the county sheriff’s department. After a few minutes of bedlam while they took over the house, they announced that they had found marijuana and that we were all under arrest.

“But what about my kittens?!” the woman of the house pleaded.

The sheriff sneered at her. “I’ll shoot them if you like,” he said.

I don’t know what happened after that, because they took me away.

Well, there’s a story that could be told about a two-week stay in the Reading jail, and someday I’ll tell it. But for now I’ll just say this. They fed me three meals a day. They gave me a bed to sleep in, where I was safe. They gave me medical treatment for my arm, which had become infected. The windows were barred, but they let the sunshine in, and fresh air. And the women there did not judge me. I could see that jail was not a place I wanted to stay. But my time there gave me a chance to heal, to gain strength, and to think. Even though there was basically nothing else to do but think (after reading the few books they had for us), it occurred to me that sitting silently with my own thoughts in jail was exceedingly more interesting than unconsciousness had been.

Eventually I felt I was ready to call my mother. I got no answer at my parents’ home after several tries, so I called my grandparents’ house.

“Betty? Where are you?!” A friend of the family was the only one there. “You mother has been just wild, trying to find you! Your uncle died, and they had to go out west without you. And now she’s in the hospital with pneumonia. I don’t think she’ll get well until she finds out you’re all right.”

Within a day or two, my grandfather – the fundamentalist Christian minister – appeared at the jail, to get me out. I was grateful that my family was there for me. I truly was. But what I felt coming at me from my grandfather, when I saw him, was fury. And censure.

So when we got to the parking lot and his car, I didn’t get in.

“Thanks for coming,” I said. “But I’ll find my own way home.”

And I did.


© 12/25/2014, Bette Ojala

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