“We could say that James Lee Stanley is probably the last great undiscovered singer-songwriter in America. But true as that may be let’s say something else: let’s say that a diamond has been smuggled into the wasteland and here is where the wasteland ends.”” – Tom Robbins (Author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, Skinny Legs and All, etc. etc.)
James Lee Stanley tells us a story about a trip he took, physically and metaphorically:
So I’m in St Louis. It’s 1975. I opened for Michael Murphy the previous night and somehow ended up with four encores and a standing ovation. I have no idea what happened, but I connected with them in some way that I am still trying to recreate.
Those nights are the reasons we put up with so many nights and gigs and trips that genuinely suck. Just on the off chance that it will happen again.
Anyhow, the next morning, I’m feeling pretty good about myself and I’m leaving St Louis for Chicago, driving my little blue Celica. (I always was amazed that the Japanese would make a car that they couldn’t say. “CeRica.” (What accommodating folks.)
As I’m threading my way through the downtown morning traffic looking for a way across the Mississippi River, I look across five lanes of one way traffic and see a young woman hitchhiking.
And not just any young woman: A beautiful young black woman with a shaved head and more piercings than a Zulu warrior. I mean, 20 earrings in each ear, a diamond in her nose, and she’s wearing those Steve Reeves Hercules sandals with the leather straps going up her legs.
And that wasn’t even the most noticeable part. Did I mention her dress? Well it wasn’t actually a dress. It was a fishnet. And not like you catch chum in, I mean like you catch Flipper. You could see e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, as they say in the Rutles movie. Everything.
It was 1975 and NOBODY looked or dressed like this. Well, you know I had to help her out, I mean…she might have been a musician.
So I drove directly across five lanes of oncoming one-way morning rush hour traffic and pulled up as nonchalantly as one can doing a controlled glide on two wheels and casually said, “Where you headed?”
“Wherever you are headed, baby,” she said as sweetly as could be.
I burst out laughing. I mean, this is movie stuff. She climbed into the car and directed me over the river and into the hinterland of Illinois.
Now, that section of Illinois is as flat as a billiard table. You don’t even know you are moving unless they whip an occasional silo by you. Just flat farmland and nothing. It was a little boring. And that’s when she offered me a joint. As I said, it was the ‘70s and folks did things like that back then. Now they just charge you four dollars for a gallon of gas and everyone is pissed.
There wasn’t that much traffic and there was no scenery so it seemed like a good idea. We shared the joint and it was powerful — the kind of high that could drive an orchid through an oak plank. It didn’t take too long before we were people without bones in our bodies. I have no idea what was holding us upright. The high I guess. And that’s when things started to get weird.
Up ahead of me, across the entire freeway, someone had erected a series of phone booths. No, couldn’t be. Yep, phone booths. I casually asked my passenger if she noticed anything funny in the road ahead. “No, baby,” she said, “Just those phone boofs.”
Either we were having parallel hallucinations or there were, indeed, phone booths strung across the highway.
I noticed that there was just enough space between each of the booths to navigate an auto, provided you did it carefully enough. So I began my maneuvering when –what to my surprise– the guy in front of me stops dead. I slammed on my brakes and skidded to within inches of his bumper.
My heart was pounding in my ears as I looked over at my passenger, who didn’t even uncross her legs. Calm, cool, casual. Very smooth, I thought. Meanwhile the guy in the car and the guy in the phone booth are chatting away.
Then the guy in front of me pulls away and I start to do the same when –KA-CHING– this gate goes down and this guy leans out of the phone booth and asks me for change. What gall. I saw the guy other guy give him something. It’s got to be a scam. This guy was asking everyone on the freeway for change. Wow, I thought in my stoniness, he must be making a killing.
Then he says, “That will be thirty cents please.” Like HELL, I thought. My passenger said, “Don’t make waves, baby, give him the coin.” Still really blasted I determined that maybe she had a good idea.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out some coins of the realm. They looked so shiny and new, but they didn’t really seem to mean anything else to me. Just two big ones and a little one was all I got out of looking at them. (Did I mention the weed?)
Then the guy asks for the change again. “Thirty cents, please.” Now I’m starting to panic. I tried reaching into my hand with the fingers of that same hand. I don’t know why I didn’t think to use my other hand to get the coins out… REALLY good weed, I guess. I don’t even have any idea what the other hand was doing then. Lying fallow probably.
So I’m reaching into my hand with that same hand and looking like I’m developing polio on the spot and the guy is getting impatient and my passenger is getting antsy and then I get this inspired idea.
I stuck my hand out the window and said, “Sir, you see those folks behind me?” He glanced back and nodded. “Well they’re with me,” I said and I dumped the entire amount of coins – two big ones and one little one – into his outstretched hand and drove off as the gate lifted.
It’s a weird world out there.
© 2012 James Lee Stanley