Where did you go this past summer?
I cracked steamed crabs in Ocean City, smiled for the camera in front of the stone wall at Graceland, and ate pork chops hot off the grill with my fingers courtesy of a stranger in the Mississippi Delta.
In Hollywood, within sight of the iconic Capitol Records tower, an arrogant health-food nut threw a handful of pennies at me, incensed that I had dropped them in his tip jar after paying $5 for lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne to cleanse myself of charred swine in the great Magnolia State.
I celebrated my son Jake’s 29th birthday by jumping waves with all three of my children near Malibu and read Isaac Bashevis Singer (“The Certificate”) before falling asleep in the back of my summer home, a 2006 Toyota pickup with 139,000 miles on it in April and 146,000 miles now.
From Crabtown to Carpinteria and back again, I made friends the way Nabokov collected butterflies.
Call it, “Travels with Ralphie,” 2012 edition.
Not quite as compelling as the elephant exorcism—DRIVING SATAN FROM THE SOUL OF A PACHYDERM!—in Saramago’s tale of a16th-century road trip from Lisbon to Vienna. But a circus nonetheless.
The day after eating a grilled lamb’s heart at a Greek Easter feast in Ellicott City (it was awful), I left Baltimore for yet another 3,000-mile journey to Los Angeles to sell ice to the Eskimos that control your TV set.
I pitched a 21st- century primetime soap: David Copperfield as a Latino street urchin working the Eastern Shore poultry industry. An idea of genius (at least as good as “The Real Housewives of Glen Burnie”), seeing as how the suits want to break the 50-million-strong Hispanic market.
But they kept asking me to put more white people in the story—said it had to be more “fun”—and the meetings ended in a stalemate. In late summer, I used the experience to school a room of aspiring Hispanic screenwriters at the Cervantes Institute in Manhattan on the surreal realities of Hollywood.
En route to Tinseltown, I paused at the grassy knoll in Dallas and watched high-school kids run into the street to have their picture taken where the second bullet struck JFK. Six hours west of Big D, I ate a homemade chorizo burrito ($3) in Toyah.
Once in the Golden State, I crashed the American Library Association convention to hear the poet Juan Felipe Herrera recite a hymn to Zen purity called “You & I Belong in this Kitchen.”
In this way, from Opening Day to Labor Day, I lived a near-homeless existence around greater Los Angeles, getting by on my wits, the small fruit of freelance writing, and public bathrooms at all-night supermarkets.
One weekend, just to get out of L.A., I meandered north on the Pacific Coast Highway and spent a night in Camarillo, which I knew from a Frank Zappa song—“Camarillo Brillo”—long before I learned it was a real place.
About 90 miles north of Camarillo is Buellton (population 4,800), where I rendezvoused with Doug Kearns—Baltimore’s Mount St. Joseph High School class of ’69—for a bowl of “world famous” pea soup at Andersen’s.
I’m sure the folks at Andersen’s—now in its 88th year—have heard it a thousand times before: As good as their split-pea is, my old man’s is better.
Now, back to pennies.
In early August in Maine, a few days after the ashes of Julian S. Stein Jr. (1919-2012) were sprinkled in the Rangeley Lake he so loved, I strolled with his daughter Phoebe after getting ice cream. In the gravel before us lay a penny, heads-up and lucky.
It is in my pocket now.
Contact Rafael Alvarez at email@example.com.