The Long March
by bart plantenga
• Jack Kerouac
Don’t fall asleep on the Metro-North Train out of Grand Central late at night or you’ll end up somewhere you never in a million years thought you’d end up with the midnight hour approaching. If you’d been on that train, you could have heard me repeating the late-night mantra STAY AWAKE DON’T FALL ASLEEP … over and over and despite – or precisely BECAUSE of! – this mantra, and despite me imploring myself to stand up, go through your wallet, retie your shoe, make a list … I indeed conked out, clueless to the world and was only startled awake when a valise thudded against my seat, just as the signs flashed Ardsley-on-Hudson. I managed to gather whatever wits I had left and leapt out just as the doors began to squeeze shut in … uh… Tarrytown! Overshooting my destination, Dobbs Ferry, by about 5 or 6 miles to the south.
I’d gone to Manhattan to see the prog-grass band Girls on Grass, 2 Brooklyn women – and bassist friend Dave. Only something special can drag me out these days to the past-sell-by-date East Village to engage in that most consumerist of sidewalk dances: the shuffle-app-selfie-click-ice-cream-lick-dance. So only when: 1. my critical capacities tip below zero; or 2. when a friend is playing in a girl band at HiFi, which inhabits the ghostly space of the formerly renowned Brownie’s …
And as I am about to tell you the rest of this tale, I again hear my partner’s voice of reason whispering sternly into my ear: Do not advertise your stupidity or drunkenness – not charming and not a career maker. Not her actual voice but the one my mind has filed on a mental mp3 under Disapproval/Admonish/Raised Eyebrows.
But I’m hardwired to tell stories like this because humility forges a crooked and poorly marked trail to nirvana, or some place like that. When I encounter an error of judgement nourished by alcohol [not too much, just the right measure I thought], it usually incites impetuous, flakey reactions on my part. Rather than wait for the next train down the track, I decided to walk home. By walking back I mean like walking 2 hours to atone. It’s like winding a tangle of yarn into a ball, a metaphor, you rightly notice, for my unraveled foibles. Yes, walk: It was 85∘with humidity at 120% – if that’s even possible. Whatever the numbers, it’s like walking the doggy paddle and the air is a swimming pool.
The march commenced with an I’m-not-the-long-distance-runner-I-once-was stress test, a steep, 25-minute climb from the Hudson Riverfront station up up up to Broadway, aka US Route 9 where strings of engine-gunning and weaving revelers are returning home in their safe SUVs with their GPS, their A/C, their panoramic views, and soundtracks ennobling even the most trivial of their gestures.
My pace synced in quickly with my heartbeat – that and the passing cars – which created a unique syncopation that hurled me back to my hitchhiking days and that forlorn feeling as the sun sinks and you still haven’t hooked that last magical ride that will taxi you through the night. I remembered many walks along many highways, my thumb failing to lure a lift. Ohio, Iowa, Upstate New York, Colorado, Utah… Walking through towns past warm picture windows with smiles floating around in them, remembering singing Patsy Cline at the top of my lungs under an Ohio viaduct, sheltered from the January snow:
I go out walkin’ after midnight / Out in the moonlight … I walk for miles along the highway / Well, that’s just my way of sayin’ I love you…
Back then, swaddled in the viaduct’s echo, I’d blow my harmonica so hard I thought I knew the blues. Tonight I turn to humming as I picked up my pace. I was clearly defying many laws of nature involving age, inebriation, existentialism, loss of muscular elasticity, amnesia and never mind exhaustion as I headed south, observing from my squint in the partial darkness as the toes of my shoes came into view like the darting beaks of birds.
I surprise myself with ancient Tom Waits lines:
on a foggy night, an abandoned road … with no indication of a service station … I was misdirected cause the interchange / never intersected, leaving me marooned / beneath a bloodshot moon…
I was maybe halfway home when I notice my mind, body, heart, the footsteps and the periodic calls of birds – thrushes? swallows? hidden deep in among the darkest branches – have joined my hum in an expansive chorus that many swear can hypnotize us all into a state of perseverance and reverie, where we discover a latent tenacity, proceeding onward beyond reason, refusing to lie down in the warm, inviting hollow of a pothole every quarter mile.
No stopping, no pity … and suddenly I’m chanting, singing: THE BUZZIN’S GOTTA COME OUT over&over& over&over& over&over& over&over, for about 45 minutes until I realize I am not fronting a Manchester band and I am walking down Cedar Street in downtown Dobbs Ferry. Delirium or transcendence? Do I have to choose?
A drunk glares from the curb; maybe he thinks I’m mocking him and following him, although I wasn’t walking behind but beside him – on the opposite side of the street!
I’m only slightly willing to admit that the chanting from wherever it came has kept my legs moving and my mind fixed or fixated, a triumph of self-hypnosis over seemingly unsurmountable circumstances + distance. I marvel for a minute and am distracted by the fact that when I try to greet the drunk no words, no mother tongue, no language emerges.
It’s only when I get home that I see what the drunk may have seen: a Sing Sing escapee, an illegal, a mute outlier with eyes wide open as portal to another realm. My jeans, shirt, underwear and socks are fall-in-a-river wet and at 1 AM I weigh them on an old scale, comparing them to an equivalent set of dry clothes: They weigh a full 4 pounds of moisture [dew + sweat] more.
I woke up the next morning a new man – lighter, less bullshit and ballast and yet, in no time, I was already failing to act upon this instant of illumination and instead, even days later, I was still busy trying to decipher my nocturnal chant: Was the “buzzin” a fusion of ear/head buzz + the passing cars + cicadas and birds + breeze through trees? Alfred Tomatis examined Gregorian and Tibetan chanting and discovered that they abound in harmonics or the sounds within all sounds. It is said that chanting vowel sounds – e.g., the “O” – will enthusiastically bound (Latin for deep, hollow sound) you out of any black hole that may have been designed to impound your soul.
And what was it that I was singing?: The buzzin’s gotta come out / The buzzard’s gotta come out / The bustle’s in the commode / Her bosom’s gotta come out / He mus’ be lookin’ like Moe / The Muslim’s in Kokomo…
WATCH THE VIDEO The Long March HERE
bart plantenga is the author of Wiggling Wishbone and Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man both published by Autonomedia. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi, established him as a global authority on the subject. He is a “nonfiction novelist” and a founding member of the New York writing group, the Unbearable Beatniks of Light.
His novel BEER MYSTIC will be published by Autonomedia.
His radio show Wreck This Mess has been on the air since 1986, first on WFMU [NY], then Radio Libertaire [Paris], and finally Radio 100 and Radio Patapoe [Amsterdam] and now on Mixcloud. He lives in Amsterdam.