September 27, 2009

The Sun Helps

Staying clean out on the road is a problem only for those without imagination. I lived in vans off-and-on for so long that I learned to take whatever opportunity presented in order to bathe. I’ve stood on a greasy bathroom floor the size of a bathmat, barred the door with my hip, stripped down and bathed with cold water over a mold-and-soap-encrusted basin the size of a softball, not-cleaned in years, and then dried off with my own clothes, and walked away to dry them in the wind. Sometimes a cold wind.

Around marinas, one could usually find a shower for the renters and fishermen who moored boats there. Working with carpenters and painters, mostly younger guys, I usually found one who would gladly let me shower at his place, and sometimes stay for dinner. Sometimes I would connect with workers who were sharing a house and living a bachelor life, and good company (or bad) came with the shower.

If I was working steady and had the money left-over from my nightly beer-drinking, two to five bucks would rent a shower at a truck stop. I look like a trucker I suppose, because I never had any trouble getting one.

For the past two winters in New Orleans, I bathed out of one or two five-gallon buckets of cold water while standing naked on a bare plywood subfloor, in an unfinished house with windows and doors installed but nothing else, and even the electric brought in on a fifty-foot cord from an outdoor construction connection. I would tape masking paper over the windows, strip down, kneel on a piece of clean plywood or a towel, and bathe each body part separately and fast, rinsing and drying as I went, because even in New Orleans winters are cold. Then I would wash my hair, and dip my head in the clean bucket of water a few times for a rinse. I’ve done this so many times in all sorts of weather over the last 20 years that it is easy. You have to steel yourself against the cold and just do it.

Of course the best bath will always be a swim in fresh water, a lake, river, or stream, with a bar of soap. Standing beneath a waterfall is the best ever bath and rinse, but look out for branches and logs coming over the falls.

Wading or swimming into the ocean is a different kind of clean, but still it is cleaner than the dirt of human toil. Living on a beach and getting used to sand in your food is a memorable and not-unpleasant experience. Keeping sand out of food can be done; but there are tricks to be learned from the wind. Sand instead of water will clean any cooking utensil or dish. Clean motor oil will clean just about anything off your hands. Dirty motor oil will too, but grime remains around fingernails.

I worked with painting and construction crews in new subdivisions of houses in various stages of construction, and waited for everyone to be gone, before going quickly to the newly-installed and connected bathroom for a quick shower or bath in front of open windows and fortunately no neighbors. I’ve never been discovered doing this.

Once I hitched across that great hot expanse of the Great Salt Desert into Reno. It was late afternoon, and the hours-long ride in an open Jeep had covered me with dirt and sweat. The River Truckee flows through downtown Reno, and trees and other foliage cover its banks. I made my way to water’s edge somewhere near downtown. I could hear people walking and talking above, but since I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me, so I let go my pack, and stripped to nothing, and bathed there as the afternoon was ending and the evening was beginning.

In the watch pocket of my jeans then I kept the wedding ring of gold rope design that my wife and I had traded at the marriage ceremony. We’d been split up for a few years, but it still was important to me, like a talisman I suppose. This day, as I usually did after dressing, I patted my pockets to make sure everything was there: change, wallet, comb, ring…no ring.

It had fallen out of the jeans either when I had taken them off or put them back on.

I surveyed the surrounding terrain quickly and intently. The sun was sinking and soon there would be no more light. I really didn’t want to lose that ring. I looked and looked. And then, just as I was despairing, the very last ray of the setting sun struck the gold ring in the stream, where it had lodged between two rocks about two feet from shore.

Imagine my happiness.

I donned the pack and walked to the nearest restaurant, a fast-food joint if I remember right. A young woman worked the place alone. I enthusiastically told her the story of finding the ring by that last ray of light. She informed me that a Reno tradition is newly-divorced people throwing their rings into the Truckee in order to celebrate. That gave the thing an extra dimension. It was as if the river had been trying to get my ring, and the sun had snatched it back. She saw what I was getting at. Finding the ring was miraculous to me. It was a small miracle as miracles go, but that’s how it seemed. And the last ray of light! I swear it was the very last illumination onto the scene. Another second or two, and I would have lost the ring forever.

How can I deny that the Universe acknowledges my existence? I am the one who keeps forgetting.

I lost the ring a few years later to a hitchhiker riding behind me, who stole the small tea can I kept it in then, along with an acorn and three Chinese coins I used to throw the I Ching. I'd found the acorn far from any oak tree in the middle of a parking lot at JFK airport the day I'd gotten out of jail in Louisiana. My future wife had met me at JFK, and we were walking to her car. I took it to be a symbol of liberty and love.

The coins were nothing to me.

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