harry hits the road


Chapter 1: Prince and Pauper

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. -- The Odyssey Book I, Homer

Muse texts me in a tizzy.

It’s 10:42 p.m. on the Saturday night before I hit the road. I’m smoking a very thin cigar on the porch of a salt box beach house in East Hampton, New York, five, maybe six miles from the loft I lease from her in Sag Harbor. A white canvas wedding reception tent is radiating man-made moonbeams in the backyard. The already battered face of my brand new iPhone glistens like a sweaty wedge of green cheese.

“U still want 2 c me @ 11 oder no?” Muse’s text message asks.

“Ja,” I text back.

I studied German for four years when I was a boarding school brat still full of promise, and I think that the word jatranslates simply and unequivocally as “yes.” I rub a finger against the half tab of Cialis tucked in the breast pocket of my threadbare blue blazer. The opening bars of “My Girl” blast out of the tent.

“I got sunshine on a cloudy day,” a wedding singer wails.  “When it’s cold outside, I got the month of May...”

The lyrics signal that this party’s over -- at least for me.

It’s June 27, 2009, not the month of May. For the last three hours, I’ve been drowning my troubles in Champagne served by the parents of the bride, who happen to be the godparents of my 11 year old son. They did not, God bless them, invite my son’s mother, who the previous day officially became my ex-wife. But being seated at the wedding feast as an unattached extra man has only inflamed my feelings of loss and dread.

I steal around the corner of the tent, and beat it to the nearest valet parker with the discreet alacrity of a con man on the lam.

My Smart Car ForTwo emerges from a lot of twice as big Mercedes, BMWs, and Land Rovers looking like a chew toy lost in the couture department at Barney’s. Originally black-on-black, it’s been covered in a shiny turquoise plastic wrap supplied by Pure Sport, an athletic drink firm based in Austin, Texas. The wrap is emblazoned with six Pure Sport logos framing the words “WORLD OF HURT Harry Hits the Road www.harryworldofhurt.com.” A blurb on the door panel invites passersby to “Join the Ultimate Real Time Road Trip From Maine to California.”

The valet parker, a tow-headed teenager in a white cotton jacket, grins as he holds the driver’s side door open for me.

“Sir, are you really going to drive this thing all that way?”

“You know GPS, global positioning system?

“Yes, sir.”

“I go by GWS -- guess we’ll see.”

“Yes, sir,” he chortles. “Good luck.”

I slip the valet parker a five spot like I’m some Hamptons high roller, and putter off into the night with the Smart Car’s radio blasting full volume.  After two weeks of unrelenting rain, the skies have been clear all day, and I can see florescent surf rolling in on the Atlantic. But according to the AccuWeather forecast booming from my speakers, the foul weather’s due to return before sunrise. I light another cigar, flicking ashes out of the driver’s side window like undertaker’s incense.


I’ve spent much of the preceding 48 hours performing a series of death rites. On Friday morning, I served as head usher at the funeral of an 82 year old first cousin distinguished by his government service as a linguist, diplomat, and spy. On Saturday morning, I mourned a New Orleans-born friend distinguished mainly by his being what used to be called, with admiration, a true bon vivant. He died of a heart attack at age 62, five years older than me almost to the day.

On Friday afternoon, in between memorials for the departed, I cashed out my  decade and a half long second marriage. I signed a ream of documents at a lawyer’s office in Southampton, and deposited my share of the settlement proceeds, a low middling six figure sum, in a savings account. I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes if and when I ever made a commensurate commitment again.

Roger that, Houston.


As I steer the Smart Car down country lanes toward Sag Harbor, I envy Cinderella. If the would-be princess’s carriage was bound to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, she at least left the ball with a glass slipper that fit. Although I played the newly eligible bachelor prince at the wedding reception, it was just make believe. I’ve recently been reduced to a pauper relative to the hosts and the other guests. Worse, I have few prospects for restoration to a throne other than the porcelain potty in my Sag Harbor bathroom.

I can blame it on George W. Bush, Wall Street shysters, deadbeat borrowers. Hell, I can blame it on the “Bossa Nova,” the dance of love. Thanks to the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market and related repercussions, the United States is in a world of hurt not seen since the Great Depression. Major banks and blue chip corporations are in bankruptcy. People are losing their jobs, their homes, and their faith in an American dream that had always promised a better day tomorrow.

I’m no exception. In fact, I’m caught in a lethal squeeze unprecedented since Gutenberg’s press killed the Catholic monks’ hand scribing industry. Print journalism, my profession for more than 35 years, is in an apparent death spiral widely attributed to the Internet boom. The newspaper and magazine industries are shrinking faster than wet wool sweaters in a microwave.

I’m the umpteenth million casualty of corporate cost cutting. Back in February, the New York Times killed my “Executive Pursuits,” a column I’d written in the participatory journalism tradition pioneered by my late friend George Plimpton, after 98 consecutive installments spanning almost four years. Two high paying Conde Nast glossies I’d written for in 2008 had ceased publication.

I feel like an extra man at the economic table: superfluous, obsolete, expendable, all euphemisms for being a worthless piece of crap. My marketable skills are roughly equivalent to those of a buggy whip maker. My current annual income, which comes from a monthly book reviewing gig that the Times can jerk at any moment without warning, totals $11,400. That’s $570 above the U.S. government’s 2009 designated poverty level for a one-person family, and $3,170 below the level for a family of two.

So cry for me, Argentina, and all you victims of Hurricane Katrina. There are plenty of people out there who face predicaments much more dire than mine. Far as I can tell, they don’t give a shit about my downwardly mobile aristocratic ass. I don’t blame them. Frankly, the feeling’s mutual. Why worry about taking care of other people when you aren’t sure you can even take care of your own damn self?

All I know is that I have to reinvent completely -- or at least find a way to cover my bills and child support obligations -- before I blow through my divorce settlement. Short of suicide, there’s no escape.

Or is there?

I searched many weeks for an answer in all the familiar places: drugs, sex, booze, Fox News, Oprah. Ironically, I found the first promising clue in a dog-eared paperback edition of The Rebel by my philosopher hero Albert Camus.

Jack Kerouac

“Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,” Camus wrote. “The problem is to know whether this refusal can only lead to the destruction of himself and others, whether all rebellion must end in the justification of universal murder, or whether, on the contrary, without laying claim to an innocence that is impossible, it can discover the principle of reasonable culpability.”

I translated all that from the French existential jargon to mean two things. First, I should at least temporarily refrain from murdering the editor and the publisher of the New York Times for dropping my column. Second, I should keep on refusing to be what I am so I can become what I’m meant to be.

Gradually and then suddenly, like the bankruptcy of a Hemingway character or an unexpected acid flashback, it dawned on me: there is an escape. The escape is escape itself, something both I and all the people who don’t give a shit about me and vice versa can get our heads around. It all boils down to two familiar words ---

Road trip!

The syllables roll off my lips with the mellifluousness of a Siren’s song. Heroic visions dance before my third eye. I’ll follow in the grand traditions of de Tocqueville, Melville, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and my pal George Plimpton, going green with a high tech twist.

I’ll drive a super fuel efficient Smart Car from coast to coast, searching for the soul of America in these awful economic times. sampling different types of jobs, taking names, making notes, filming real time videos with Flip cameras, friending on Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, getting wired but staying weird.

Some people I know are already saying I’m too old for this kind of behavior, and they’re absolutely right. They say I should quit dreaming, refrain from acting on impulse, manage my emotions. Nothing valuable can come bumming around the country like some hippie kid; I should stay home in my pajamas and surf the web for porn and employment opportunities in forensic science like a real grown up.  And what do I say?

Road trip!


GWS -- guess we’ll see!    


I wheel into the Sag Harbor hysterical district with the digital clock on the dashboard of my Smart Car flashing 11:03. The loft I lease from Muse is in a brown wood shingled duplex across the street from a cheesy Italian restaurant and a row of art galleries hung with For Sale signs. It’s known as Halsey House after the former whaling captain who framed it with spare ship’s beams before his chosen industry went bust in the mid-19th Century.

Halfway up the driveway, the Smart Car skids across a patch of loose gravel, fishtailing. I pump the brake pedal hard. The lower rim of the steering wheel slams into my groin. My skull smacks against the moonroof. The car shudders to a stop within inches of Halsey House’s starboard hull.

Sag Harbor home

The absurd reality of what I’m about to do hits me head-on like a runaway 18 wheeler. I hurt inside my World of Hurt. It’s nothing like going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but my road trip still poses all sorts of risks, physical, financial, spiritual, dietary. In fact, the whole thing invites disaster. Then again, so what? Turning back at this point would be rather pusillanimous, a fancy word for chicken shit. The only way out is, Forward ho! Sail on, Captain Halsey!

I steer the Smart Car into its proper parking place near the back fence. I switch on my brand new Flip camera, and film myself transferring the half tab of Cialis from my blazer into my open mouth. The erectile dysfunction drug tastes like fairy dust. I close my eyes for a sec, spinning from wedding reception Champagne. All that remains is bidding Muse a temporary good-bye with a bit more bubbly, and, if I can manage it, a whole lot of pharmaceutically enhanced sex.


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. HH3 in Sagaponack, NY after funeral (anon.) 2. Smart Car at Steinbeck House, Sag Harbor, NY (HH3) 3. Montage of Authors - John Steinbeck, Homer, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus 4. Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, Sag Harbor, NY (HH3)