Monday, August 4, 2014

The Ballad of Buttonwillow

Mix Bakeshop
Soy Cappuccino
Anise Shortbread
Bittersweet Chocolate Chip Cookie

It's storytime with Chandra!

Someone asked about a reference I made a little while ago to Buttonwillow, and why I always stop there when I drive up or down I-5.  So cast your minds back 17 years ago (yikes!) to June of 1997...  Graduation night...

For graduation, my mother gave me a AAA membership, which came with four free tows and four free tire changes.  This was a wise gift since my car - my first, my baby, my freedom - was a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle.  It was house paint green and primer grey, with the red and white of previous paint jobs showing through in places.  It was perfectly complete with duct tape and bondo, a driver side window that was permanently cracked open about an inch - no more, no less - and an oil leak.  In fact, when I had first driven it up to my friend's house, all of my male friends had converged around it, and before I had said a word, they asked, "Okay, other than the oil leak, what's wrong with it?"  They warned me to run the heater to pull the hot air from the engine (intensely uncomfortable advice for summertime in southern California) so it wouldn't overheat, and they forbade me from driving more than 100 miles because "something" would happen.

My car had a 9-ball topper for a gear shift, and it was officially named Robespierre, because I had originally called it Turtle, and that's kind of long story why those two names are connected and involves an animated Judy Garland movie.  To everyone else, it was known as RoadTrip.  Roady, for short.

Back to graduation...

I had a pathetically quiet grad night.  I had been named my class's valedictorian, which was a total surprise to me.  They announced my future plans to go to Cabrillo College to study math and become an actuary.  (This was before I understood that an actuary is basically a person who figures out the likelihood of your demise for insurance companies.  That was not the way it had been described to me at the time.).  And I looked stunning that night under my cap and gown, and that's saying something.  I was finally getting happy with my body, now that my adult curves had come in and things had balanced out.  But I spent my night alone at Denny's, after I had said good-bye to family and a few friends.  Writing.  And anxious to leave town.

But I had to wait four more days till my childhood best friend, T (I shall call her), had graduated from her high school.  As I said before, my friends advised me to never travel more than a hundred miles at a time, so they simply refused to let me travel the four hundred miles from the ass-end of the Inland Empire (no one called it the I.E., in my day) up north to Santa Cruz, alone.  So, hours after T's graduation, we threw some stuff in my car, made several last minute additions and adjustments, and headed north to freedom.

At 18, my biggest fear was getting stuck.  Getting stuck in that godsforsaken desert of southern California, getting stuck in poverty, getting stuck somewhere in some situation without the ability to rescue myself.  I was desperate to escape.  All I wanted was to move home - to cool weather and redwoods and the taste of saltwater in the air - and to go to school.  If I could just get through school, get my degree, then I would not be doomed to be poor forever.

It was the middle of the night, creeping up the Grapevine Pass in the same lane as the semis, blasting the "Great, Great Road Tape" on my little portable tape player, trying to out-howl the wind coming through my perpetually open window.  We decided to press on past Gorman since we had gotten such a late start.  We would stop in Buttonwillow, as my older brother had advised.  He had some superstition about stopping there after certain roadtrip misadventures of his own.

We descended the Pass, still in the dead of night, into California's great Central Valley.  We skipped the first town, Metler.  We were only 30 miles from Buttonwillow, and the slow climb had set our time back even further.

Fifteen miles out from Buttonwillow, I blew a tire.

In the dark of night, along one of the most heavily traveled interstates in America, T and I walked to an emergency phone and called AAA.  Thank you, Mom.  AAA sent a tow truck.  My spare was not only flat, but the frame was smashed.  We got towed back to Metler.  The sun was hinting at its arrival.  I watched giant oil jacks undulate against the perfect shade of blue sky.

When we got to the garage, the driver pulled out his one and only tire that would fit my car.  T pointed out that it was cracked all over.  The driver gave us the tire for free and told us to get a new one as soon as we got to the next town.  T and I gassed up the car, got some nibbles, and got back on the 5.

We talked it over - I had almost no money to make this trip.  I had been working as a math tutor and as a "boothie" at the local Renaissance Faire, so I had scrounged together just enough for gas and food, round trip.  We decided to take it easy and try to make it on the bad tire.  And having just gassed up in Metler, we drove past Buttonwillow without stopping.  That was my brother's superstition, anyway.

A mile past Buttonwillow we blew the sketchy tire.

Second free tow used.  Second free tire change used.  This tire was good, though, and set me back $65.  I think it was the second check I had ever written.  We dined at the Denny's in Buttonwillow, and got back on the now morning-bright road.

Less than two miles past Buttonwillow, I noticed I was having trouble passing cars.  Since I knew the next major town was 60 miles north (Coalinga, land of the cow internment camp), I took the next overpass and headed back to Buttonwillow.  The owner of the garage was on his lunch, but he graciously took my car for a quick test drive.

"Yep!  Your transmission's going."

T and I drove into town and called my brother.  Before I can say anything, he asks, "How far'd you get?"


"Okay, be there in three hours."

I parked Roady at a gas station with a note promising my imminent return.  Then T and I checked into a cheap hotel room to wait out the next few hours.  While T was in the shower, I called a friend, who asked which room I was in.  "Isn't that the one where the murder happened?"

T and I got dressed up and played cards.  Three hours later, we wedged our stuff and ourselves into my brother's pick-up and headed back to evil, vile, fucking SoCal.

The next day, when I should have been in Santa Cruz getting registered and advancing my life, I was instead back home with my then sister-in-law and my niece, in full mope.  We were listening to the radio.  They called out the license plate of someone sporting the radio station's bumper sticker.  Some lucky person had won tickets to see Blues Traveler.  Woo-hoo, for you.


But after an hour, they still had not called, so the station offered up the tickets to caller number 10.  Why not?  I called.

I won.

I don't win.  Whenever something is winnable, I do the opposite.  But I won.  I didn't care that the concert was in August during my first week of school 400 miles away and that I didn't have a car that was likely to get out of Buttonwillow, let alone make another 800 mile round trip.  I won something.

So, come August, I cut my classes, borrowed my aunt's car, picked-up my sister, and (after a nap) we headed to the Greek Theater to see Blues Traveler.  Joan Osbourne was the opening act.  She was awesome.  And in the time between the opener and the headliner, my sister and I chatted with the guys in the row in front of us.

They, too, had won tickets.  Or, rather, the big guy with the long hair who looked strikingly like Silent Bob had won tickets on a different radio station.  He hadn't been caller 10, though.  The radio hosts had been taking callers to see who could come up with the worst pick-up line that might actually work on a woman.  His winning line: "You're so beautiful, I'd drink a tub of your bathwater."

But Walker always won, I was to find out.

Blues Traveler came on and were beyond awesome.  I remember at one point, Bruce Willis showed up to play with them.  They blew out the speakers.  John Popper told a wonderful, cringe-worthy joke (which I will not repeat here) while the roadies fixed the equipment.  But the highlight, the profound, life-changing turning point, came during the song "Hook."

I had made a point of memorizing all the words, including the fast-talking (would you call it "rap"?) part, so I was still singing along as half the crowd had dropped out.  Walker turned around, slack-jawed.  "You know all the words?"

I smiled and kept singing.

"Oh my god - marry me."

"Where's my ring?"

He pulled the one off his thumb and I tried it on.  Way too big, of course.  He assured me he would get me another.  And long story short (too late!) he did.

By the end of my first quarter in college, as things fell apart in Santa Cruz, I moved back to fucking southern California.  My fiancĂ© and I lived with his parents, and we both went to school - he was an English major trying to be a writer, and I had shifted to a math/physics major.  This would only be temporary, though, until we could get back to Santa Cruz for the fall.


As with so much of my life, temporary became permanent, and things fell apart in all sorts of ways.  But nothing in my life is how it would have been had I not met him.  The people I know now, my old Borders family from Cali and Connecticut, were people I met directly or indirectly because of him.  And strangely enough, he is now a scientist - I see him on the History Channel every once in a while - and I am the writer.  Trying to be anyway.

If I have learned anything in life, it is that you have to have a clear path of what you want and a clear plan of how you intend to get there.  You cannot let your life just occur from situation to situation.  But what I have also learned, is to let the Universe knock you around.  If you are wandering too far afield, even if it's straight at what you think you want, things tend to shift you towards where you need to be going.  Don't fight it - roll with it.  Ride the tide, like the surfers off the Lighthouse Point.

And always, always stop and pay homage in Buttonwillow.

No time to edit - I am totally getting a parking ticket today.  Have a good week, and bust out your old mix tapes!


  1. I am always amazed at the things you find on the internet.

    I remember the concert part a bit differently...

    My friend and I were at the concert, and were absolutely checking out the two attractive young ladies behind us. After Joan Osborne finished (and my friend and I were emboldened with Liquid Courage), we turned around to talk with them.

    I immediately started talking to the darker haired one, while my friend was chatting up CDKM. About halfway through the conversation, the darker haired one said that she was married to CDKM's brother... and I immediately (in classic male cockblocking fashion) turned and started to talk to CDKM. My friend was a little less than pleased (and ended up giving me shit the entire ride home), but relented.

    A little time passed, and I heard the Ballad of Buttonwillow up to the present moment. Naturally, the conversation turned to Blues Traveler. As a just-beginning-to-learn-to-play-the-harmonica fan, finding out she was also a fan, I gushed about John Popper's skill, and that led to his vocal stylings, and we ended up talking about "Hook".

    I (in a macho "I bet I know more of the song than you" guy way), half-jokingly, half-seriously said:

    "If I ever meet a girl that knows the entire fast part of 'Hook', I'm going to marry her."

    The look on CDKM's face was riddled with amusement and a little bit of snarkiness. I didn't realize at that second, it was on. "Challenge Accepted" are the appropriate words for it I think.

    The music started, Blues Traveler was in absolute top form... and then "Hook" started and the crowd went crazy.

    My friend was jamming along (new to BT), the crowd (myself included) was singing/yelling along... and then the fast bit started...

    "Suck it in suck it in suck it in
    If you're Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn..."

    A few more verses in, the crowd, overwhelmed, began to fade. People were stumbling over the words, running out of breath, and falling into a general swaying, dancing rhythm.

    Then... behind me... a clean, crisp voice. Solid. Bold. Cocky.

    "I'll do as I'll decide and let it ride until I've died
    And only then shall I abide this tide...

    I turned around, and there was CDKM... smiling, matching every word and beat... then proceeded to *lean toward me* with a defiant glitter in her eyes, daring me to keep going.

    I stumbled. I stalled. The words left my head and fell out of my mouth in a jumble.

    The song ends. I'm slackjawed.

    ...and from then on, the narrative goes. Lives change. For the bad, and ultimately for some... the better. For some.

    For the record... I might be a scientist now, but you are, and always were, the better writer.

    I don't always win. Haven't for a long, long time now.

    Glad to have been a catalyst, in any way possible.


    (By the way... the concert is online. The things you find on the internet... )

  2. Hello, my dear old friend.

    This feels reminiscent of our whole relationship - you and I not entirely agreeing on what was said, done, meant... I can say that I remember a lot of the details you described (I was trying to wrap things up by that point, knowing that I had wandered a bit long), but clearly our remembrances diverge. I don't 100% trust in all of my recollections, but I don't recall you explicitly saying to me that you'd marry a woman if she knew all the words to "Hook" prior to the song coming on. You may have said something about knowing all the words, but I don't recall it quite the same, as a premeditated challenge. What I recall is you saying afterward that you had made that comment to your friends in the car on the way to the concert. And I do recall you saying somewhere in there "marry me" and me, not sure exactly how to keep up the witty banter, asking for a ring. I may be misremembering details, but those are the strongest impressions I hold on to.

    As for winning... I guess that was short-hand for the way you met people - particularly famous people - and interacted with them and how stuff happened for you when things never seemed to come through for me. And for how we discovered I couldn't get within 50 feet of a famous person without something (or somebody) being in some way broken. The first time I saw you on TV, it was bizarre and disconcerting, and then it was entirely, "well, of course, he's on TV..." I don't know much of anything about your life over these last several years to say if either of us is "winning" at anything. I know enough about mine to say that I should feel better about what I have, but it's damn hard sometimes to feel the joy that is here. I'm guessing something like that probably applies for you, too.

    As for the writing - nuh-uhn. I can accept whatever value I have as a writer of nonfiction, but I was trying to write fiction when I met you. Then I read your stuff and realized, "Oh. That's what a real writer does." Whatever you do or don't do with it, you have an innate talent as a writer that is, frankly, intimidating. Never, ever doubt it.

    Lastly, Buttonwillow was a catalyst, and my relationship with you was life-altering, in and of itself, let alone the paths and people it led to. But I value having had you in my life because of you. I wish I had done things better - I wish I had known what I needed to do at the time. But I do not regret you. Many of my fondest memories have you beside me... like wrapping that one present so badly you said the other presents were going to tease it when we put it under the tree... And I just miss you, too. After watching the last Star Trek movie in the theater, I sat in a coffeeshop completely lacking you extolling the awesomeness of a trench-coat-clad Khan kicking much ass... or you ripping on the lameness of the same scene because everybody loves Benedict-fucking-Cumberbatch right now... And when my boys watch "Monsters, Inc" now, I still feel a little choked up when Boo calls Sully "Kitty."

    I don't know if this is the last we speak, but I'm glad we have spoken even this little bit. For the record, my email has not changed. If you write to me again (and if I can find your email among the political detritus) I will reply. We can try to "meet" each other again, as we are today.

    I wish you well, you and your family. I don't know what else to say. Take care.

  3. I can honestly say I didn't expect a response, nor such a... emotional one.

    I don't remember the specifics of your email... if it was Google or Yahoo or Hotmail or which... nor if it had to do with socks or philosophy.

    I can be reached at gmail using my first and last name. No spaces, dots, or underscores. Firstlast at gmail.

    Thank you for the kind words.

    ...and don't even get me started on the new Star Trek movies. Holy crap.