Can’t Find Chuck Berry on the Radio – John Crawford
November 10, 2021
Reggie likes to fuck with tractor-trailers, the bigger and heavier the better. He likes cutting them off and hearing their brakes screech. He likes blocking their lane by driving way below the speed limit, or hypermiling behind them, letting their draft pull him along.
Kurt has a thing against technology. He’s afraid we’re becoming too dependent, that it’s taking us down a bad road. He can’t stand GPS or video screens for kids in the backseats or those cameras that help you parallel park. He hates phones most of all, but he’s not alone there. The distracted assholes who talk or text while driving deserve to smash into a telephone pole.
Lots of things piss me off. Political bumper stickers and Jesus fish and personalized license plates and tinted windows. If we’re talking vehicles, I hate Jeeps, sports cars, and pickup trucks, and I give chicks in coupes a wide berth. They’re either young and careless, with no kids, husbands or responsibilities to sober them up, or they’re newly divorced, which means they’re hot to trot and out of their heads. Either way, they’re trouble.
The worst are SUVs. They’re all about ego, about some cul-de-sac fool hard up for status and size and some illusion of safety. Plus they burn too much gasoline. Kurt thinks we’ll soon be fighting over gas, like something out of Mad Max, and while he’s usually a bit paranoid, I can’t say he’s wrong about that.
On the Blue Route one night, we pass an SUV that’s sliding over the white lines. We pull up alongside it, and sure enough, the driver is yakking on a phone. Something needs to be done, so Reggie winds down his window. “Get as close as you can,” he tells me, and he leans far out, the wind in his face, the highway blowing by. He wants to bang on the guy’s window and scare the shit out of him. He wants to teach him a lesson.
Different nights bring different highways.
The Atlantic City Expressway is full of fast-moving buses jammed with old people and gambling-addicted, crazy-ass drivers racing to the casinos. I-95 tests your nerve, with its construction zones, Jersey barriers, and warnings of increased speeding fines.
The New Jersey Turnpike pulses with 12 lanes of traffic. Just to keep up you’ve got to do 85. Plus Springsteen sang about it. Chuck Berry did, too. And Simon and Garfunkel sang about counting its cars, which makes no sense, unless you’re stuck in the wastelands of Jersey with miles of swamp and suburbs around you.
On the night of the hurricane, we ride the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a 300-mile run from Philly to Pittsburgh, through tunnels and up mountains, where you can lose yourself in the fog and mist that can settle over the roadway.
With the hurricane coming, Kurt doesn’t want to hang around. “You remember the way the government handled that one in New Orleans, right?” he says. Hurricanes normally don’t come our way, and this one’s a big one, a category 5, one of those climate-change monster storms, and people are freaking out. “I was just at Wal-Mart, and people are lining up to buy ammunition,” Kurt says. “We got to get the hell out of Dodge. It’s like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are coming at us.”
There are rules we ride by. They aren’t written down. Most of them we don’t even talk about. They’re just understood.
You drive with one hand, for starters. You look stupid using two.
We ride at night. It’s more film noir, and most of us have no reason to wake up in the morning.
You respect the driver, and especially, his car. Treat it like your own. If you got trash, take it with you. If you feel a puke coming on, lean out the window.
Shotgun picks the music, though the driver has ultimate veto, and we never fight over who sits up front. We take turns. It’s more grown up that way. We take turns filling the tank, too.
We don’t wear seat belts. Wearing a belt is like rolling on a condom or strapping on a motorcycle helmet. It just doesn’t feel right.
We’re into big cars. Any idiot can go fast in a small plastic pile of shit. Real men drive boats. Cadillacs and Lincolns and Crown Vics. They’re sturdy, heavy, and American, and you feel like you can slam into a tree and walk away without a scrape.
On the night of the hurricane, though, Kurt is driving a borrowed Corolla instead of his usual big-ass Buick. It isn’t a popular pick. “A Corolla?” says Reggie, sitting on the hood of his Cutlass. We’re in our usual meetup place, in a strip mall parking lot somewhere on the sprawl, and we’re waiting for night, for the last bit of red to bleed from the sky. Reggie is wearing his standard uniform: oil-stained jeans and a plain white t-shirt. He wears the shirts right out of the pack and only washes them a few times before throwing them out. “What kind of ride is that? You can’t be king of the road in a Corolla. Where’s the Regal?”
“It’s in the shop.” Kurt rubs a beard that covers his face like carpet. It’s wild and needs a trim and makes him look like a hobo riding the rails. He grew the beard to hide a scar that he got as a kid. The scar runs down his cheek and has a Frankenstein’s monster quality to it.
Kurt seems to have crammed the Corolla with all his worldly possessions. He is ready to hit the highway. Now. “Did you watch the news? The roads will be jammed. We got to leave.”
Stop signs we treat like yields.
We slow down for wreckage. We check out the carnage.
Once lights turn green, we charge intersections, daring anyone to rush a left-hand turn in front of us. On the boulevard, we time the lights and go as fast we can, seeing how many in a row we can make.
We think up crazy propositions. For $100, Kurt says he’ll ram any car door carelessly left open, take it right off its hinges. For $200, Reggie says he’ll take out a deer on the side of the road, but Mel, his girlfriend, doesn’t like when he talks like that, and I don’t think he would have the heart to do it anyways. Besides, he would wreck his car.
Mel likes to fool around with Reggie while he drives. In case things get messy, Reggie keeps a towel in the car. In his ride, Kurt keeps a baseball bat.
We all get pissed at people who ignore the laws of common courtesy and decency. When someone parks their ridiculous luxury car over two spaces, we spit on it. We might even key it. When pedestrians cross at red lights, we accelerate and make them run. One night, we follow a guy for 20 miles to his home because the dude didn’t use a turn signal. We yell at him as he stands in his driveway.
It isn’t that we want to hurt anyone. Part of it is just fun, and part of it is demanding that people pay respect to us and the road.
And part of it is the feeling that things have come undone, that nothing is holding us down anymore.
That’s a feeling I can’t shake. I don’t have a job, and the odds aren’t good for finding one. I don’t have a girlfriend, and the odds aren’t good for finding one of those either. I don’t own a house, don’t have health insurance or credit, and I rarely see my family. Nothing is connected or tethered to me. Nothing is there to keep me from driving away, night after night.
If you ride with Kurt, you hear about how the American empire is rotting away.
“Concrete is dropping from the sky,” he says one night. He’s got shotgun, and I’ve got the wheel. Reggie and Mel are wrapped around each other in the backseat. We’re headed for the Jersey Turnpike. “Bridges are collapsing, levees are failing, roads are falling apart.”
“Eve of Destruction” blares on the stereo. It’s from Kurt’s end-times mix. Other cuts include “In the Year 2525,” “1999,” and “Miami 2017.” Kurt goes on, “Then you got our food, which is toxic. And the toys are made of lead, and the ocean is full of plastic. Not that it matters. When the ice caps melt, everything will be washed away.”
“Maybe we should change the music,” says Reggie from the back. With wind blowing through his hair and his girl snuggled against him, he looks content, like a dog sticking his head out a car window. “It’s messing with the vibe.”
Corporate rock radio had been broadcasting a mega-block of Springsteen, 20 in a row, the ultimate in driving music, but Kurt had turned him off. He was in a weird mood, an apocalyptic mood, and Bruce wasn’t going to cut it.
We come up to the turnpike’s toll booth, and Kurt tells me not to use EZ Pass. He doesn’t want anyone knowing where we’re going. By the side of the road, strips of old tractor-trailer tires are scattered like shedding from a reptile. “Toll collectors on the turnpike are like the boat keepers on the River Styx,” Kurt says. “There should be a sign, ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’”
Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues” turns up on the mix, and we blast out of the toll booth, like thoroughbreds at the starting gate. We ride up on a minivan sitting in the passing lane. “I’ve never seen a minivan that moves fast,” Reggie says. “Goddamn soccer moms.”
The minivan fills up our windshield, and I flash my lights. She doesn’t get over, so I flash them again. When she finally she gets of our way, we smile at her as we pass. I beep a shave-and-a-haircut on the horn.
Music is important. The greatest feeling in the world is when the rock and roll plays, and we’re loose in our cars, the world rushing by. If the night is right, and the song matches the moment, you feel free from everything, at least for a little while.
Springsteen is a prophet. He knew what it was all about, or at least he did in his early days, before he grew old and settled and stopped writing about driving away from it all.
The Beach Boys knew, too. So did Chuck Berry. “No Particular Place to Go.” That’s our mission statement. That’s our national anthem.
Some nights, though, you don’t want music. Some nights, you want silence. You’re in the zone of driving, this Zen-like space, and you’re not even thinking. You’re drifting along, and the only sound you want is the engine, the wind, and the night.
When you reach that space, you feel like you can drive for hours.
Movies are important, too. Reggie likes Paul Newman, how he rode cars in real life, and Mel likes “Rebel Without a Cause,” James Dean and Natalie Wood, how she gives the signal for the drag race, the cars speeding to the edge of the cliff. Mel also likes “American Graffiti.” She says it’s about a lost age, before e-this and i-that, when people cruised the strip, listened to music, and burned gas on the way to nowhere in particular.
We like “Thunder Road,” “Duel,” and “Vanishing Point.” Of course, we all like Steve McQueen. He had it all. The look. The women. The cars. He was the cock of the walk, the coolest thing on the road. He felt what we felt, the need to push it, to break out, to run. He would have understood us. We were sure of that.
We study car chases, and it’s an accepted fact that there are two great ones: McQueen’s Mustang-Charger duel in “Bullitt,” and Gene Hackman’s el train chase in “The French Connection.” Nothing else compares. Hollywood can’t do a good chase anymore. The editing is too fast, the music too loud, the characters too full of crap. Watch a modern chase scene, and you’re overloaded with unnecessary explosions and special effects. You don’t need any CGI to put on a great chase. All it requires is a road and two fast cars.
The most real chases nowadays are on YouTube. You can find all kinds of wild footage from news helicopters and dashboard cams.
“Look at how smashed up it is,” Kurt says, as we watch an RV driven by a drunk spin out of control and roll down an embankment. We’re in his basement bedroom, his underground bunker hidden from the world’s madness. It’s the kind of place you want to be if the bombs ever fall, and it’s where we gather to watch movies and videos.
“Rewind it,” Reggie says. “Rewind it.”
“It’s a shame it didn’t catch fire.”
“Will you shut the fuck up and rewind it?”
Mel understands our thing, and she likes driving fast, but there’s more to it than that. She’s into the romance of the road. She’s into making out in backseats and listening to the radio loud and letting the wind blow around her long hair. She likes the innocence of the old rock and roll songs, the ones about meeting fatal motorcycle boys in candy stores, about looking for your runaway baby in the rain and giving her a last kiss after wrecking your daddy’s car.
Mel loves Reggie like something out of one of those old songs. “You look like a greaser, like you should be in a motorcycle gang,” Mel tells Reggie one night as we’re parked in a strip mall, shopping carts clinking around us. Mel wears one of her striped skirts that look like a piece of peppermint candy.
“Will you be my Leader of the Pack?” says Mel, her brown eyes like mud that can pull you in and get you stuck so badly that your wheels are spinning.
“He dies in that song,” Reggie says.
On the night of the hurricane, Reggie and I hop on the PA Turnpike and head west, away from the coast. Clouds move fast across the sky. This boy in a baseball cap, driving some low-riding, piece-of-shit sports car, passes us on the right in the cruising lane, not going super fast, but still fast enough to be annoying.
“Is Mel hunkered down somewhere?” I ask. “Why didn’t she come with us?”
“We had a fight. She was talking about the future and us getting married one day and having kids. She talks about our future together a lot, but this time I said, ‘I’m not having any kids.’”
The boy in the baseball cap tosses a cigarette out the window, and it bounces on the highway like an electric spark, but Reggie doesn’t chase him. “She wasn’t happy I said that, but can you imagine bringing kids into the world?” Reggie says. “Things are so fucked up. I don’t want to sound like Kurt, but what is life going to be like in 20, 30 years?”
The boy in the baseball cap pulls far ahead. Above us on a ridge, cell phone towers blink and stand like specters, emitting frequencies and transmissions.
“Besides, can you see any of us settling down and having kids?” Reggie says. “That kind of life isn’t for people like us. You know what I’m talking about? People like us don’t work in cubicles and live in the suburbs.”
“You’re probably right. But if we don’t settle down, where does all this end?” A few miles pass, a few curves in the road, and then I ask Reggie, “Remember Hoffer?”
Hoffer used to ride with us, but on a night of black ice, he slammed into a guardrail, and everything changed. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was scared, thinking of the crashes that were inevitable, and he just stopped.
“He lives next to a mall now, and he’s about to get married,” Reggie says. “He never rides. He never does anything.”
“His fiancée is beautiful.”
“But he comes home from work, watches TV, and passes out on the couch.”
We hear a state trooper’s siren, and instinctively, we look around for the blinking lights. Two cop cars pass us coming the other way, and Reggie gives them the finger. The road bends, one way and then another, before finally straightening out.
“If I don’t drive for a while, my leg starts to shake,” Reggie says. “Does that happen to you? My leg shakes, and it won’t stop.”
Day after day, we meet up for a night of getting around, as the Beach Boys would say. We begin each drive the same way, gathering in the same strip mall out on the sprawl, out on a DMZ of parking lots and big box stores. It’s no place for a pedestrian. Try to walk around without a car, and someone might run you the hell over.
We gather one by one, after dragging ourselves out of bed, or nursing hangovers, or finishing part-time jobs that we’ll soon either quit or be laid off from. Glad to have made it through another day, we talk about a destination, and go.
We see so much on our drives: the close calls, the craziness, the construction, the jams-ups, the wrecks, the foggy nights when taillights disappear and you feel like you’re riding into the abyss, the icy nights when your tires lose their grip and the car slides underneath you, the rainy nights when the lines blur, the windows fog, and your wipers pound against the windshield.
We pass a tanker truck that’s overturned, spilling salt on the highway, the wind blowing it around, turning the world into a snow globe. We pass a car on fire in the shoulder and the police standing, watching it burn, the heat intense as we drive by. We pass pretty girls in their cars, who maybe throw us a smile, like the woman in the T-bird in “American Graffiti,” and we pass sleepy trucks parked at rest stops for the night, their running lights on, their engines idling, their drivers resting before another haul.
Sometimes, things are peaceful, even pretty, like the way the dashboard glows in the dark, or the way the moon hangs over the highway and dissolves into the clouds like an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. One time, a lightning bug smashes into the windshield. Its body splatters, like a gob of green paint that’s been dropped on the glass, but its guts keep glowing for miles until they finally fade out.
When the rides end, we make our way back through the sprawl, past the office parks, past the new subdivisions being built. We finish in the same strip mall where we started, parking near an empty chain store that filed for bankruptcy. The world may be waking up at this point, the sprawl just starting to fill with cars, but we head home, a whole day in front of us to kill before starting it all up again.
I’m not sure how it will end for us. Sometimes, things become too much.
“Do you want to die?” Kurt says one night. We’re pushing 100 and taking a turn on the turnpike. We’re up a mountain. The other side of the guard rail drops off into darkness, like something out of the song “Dead Man’s Curve.” I’m in shotgun. In the backseat, Mel wraps her arms around Reggie like an anchor.
“Slow down,” I say.
“Just think, one wrong move, and we’re airborne.”
“Kurt, slow down.”
“We could go right over the side.”
“Jesus Christ, will you slow the fuck down, asshole?”
We come upon this wreck once, and I still remember this woman stumbling around, her SUV having slid off the highway into a tree. She’s cut up, and her face is blank and empty, like she doesn’t know where she is or what happened. She just keeps walking around her car, staring straight ahead, wounded but not realizing it. We slow down to look at her, then speed away.
Not all endings are like Thelma and Louise, big and crazy and glorious. Not all endings work like that.
One night we’re in Kurt’s basement watching The French Connection, which is practically a religious experience, with the car-el train chase representing everything we spent chasing, that perfect moment of speed, risk, and who-gives-a-shit.
Sprawled out on the floor, we say nothing as the credits roll. “I know this may be sacrilege,” Reggie says, after a respectful moment has passed, “but I don’t like how it ends. There’s no big shootout, and he doesn’t even catch the French dude. He just shoots someone by mistake, wanders around in the dark, and that’s it.”
We digest that. Criticizing The French Connection is like ripping on The Bible.
“I mean no disrespect to Gene Hackman or anything,” Reggie says.
“Well, I like the ending,” Mel says. “Sure, it would be perfect if the French guy was caught, but life isn’t like that. Sometimes, things just end.”
We all nod in agreement. Yeah, she’s right. Life is like that.
Things could end quietly. One night I descend into Kurt’s basement to scoop him up for the night, and he’s sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, a remote in his hand. He doesn’t look at me. Clothes, books, and magazines are thrown about the room, and within arm’s reach, Kurt has collected an impressive supply of liquor and pill bottles. The TV drones on as Kurt switches from CNN to MSNBC to Fox.
“What’s going on?” I say.
“I’m not up for it tonight,” Kurt says.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I’m just not up for it.”
“That’s cool,” and with that I leave, simple as that, even though in the back of my mind, I know Kurt isn’t right and that I probably shouldn’t leave him alone. But as I hop back in my car, I don’t think of interfering in his life. If he ends up hurting himself, that’s his right, I suppose.
And Kurt is back at it the next night anyway, riding down to DC, asking us somewhere around the Delaware chemical plants to guess how long he can drive without touching the steering wheel.
On the night of the hurricane, Reggie and I pull into a rest stop to rendezvous with Kurt. We’re near the exit for Johnstown, a place used to death and disaster.
The rest stop is full of idling tractor-trailers, and the air smells of diesel. We find Kurt as he wipes off the tire of his Corolla with a stack of napkins from the all-night McDonald’s. “This animal just ran right into the road,” he says, digging into the treads. “I don’t even know what it was. What gets into an animal’s mind to go running across the road.”
Kurt’s car stereo is cranked to the 24/7 news station, its big signal stretching across the state. They’re talking about the hurricane as a fake news ticker plays in the background. Sitting on our hoods, we watch the highway. Like little kids, we point out the cars with one headlight.
“I had a close call with a state trooper on the ride here,” Kurt says. “I went blowing by the fucker. I didn’t see him sitting there till I was right on top of him.”
“Did he get your plate?” I say.
“I think I’m OK. I merged into a group of cars somehow, and after waiting a little while, I got off at an exit. He lost track of me.”
“You got lucky.”
We aren’t pulled over often, but it’s a constant risk. We know the spots to be careful, the places where cops hang out. Good fortune doesn’t hurt. Whenever we’re pulled over, we do as we’re told. You don’t want to end up a body on the side of the road.
“Do we have to keep listening to the news?” I say, as the radio plays on, the reporters talking of the hurricane’s power, of what it could do to buildings and people. “They’re making it sound like doomsday is coming.”
“It’s a big fucking storm,” Kurt says.
“I hope Mel is OK,” says Reggie. “I probably shouldn’t have left her behind.”
“We can’t turn back now,” says Kurt. “We should get some petrol, saddle up, and keep going to Ohio.”
Once in a great while, we did allow ourselves to rest.
One such night, long before the hurricane, we’re in the darkness of the drive-in. It’s one of the few left in the country, and I feel like we’re looking at an endangered species, something from another age. Eventually, it probably will fall to land developers craving more open spaces to turn into sprawl.
Mel and Reggie cuddle in the backseat, and Kurt and I sit upfront. The movie plays out on the big screen, filling our windshield with colors and faraway places.
“I got to admit that it feels good to just sit here,” says Reggie. We all nod, and for a moment, I think about other possibilities. I peek at the backseat, at Mel. I wish I could be back there with someone like her.
Only about a dozen cars are parked at the drive-in. In some, teenaged lovers hidden by steamed windows grapple with geometry in backseats. In others, parents smile, remembering old times, back before things got rooted and fixed and constant. I don’t think they regret the loss of those times. They don’t wish them back. They just think about them. In their backseats, children sleep.
Up on the screen, something is wrong. The picture jumps, the sound echoes and hisses, and everything blurs. The movie stops. From their cars, people yell and boo. Kurt fiddles with the radio, searching for something old.
“What happened to the oldies station?” he says. “I can’t find it.”
“It went off the air,” Mel says. “The songs it played were too old, I guess. No one wanted to hear them.”
We grow quiet. I look around at the drive-in, at the concession stand, at all the empty parking spots, at the screen resting against a background of sky and stars.
“Do you guys know that Chuck Berry song where he sings about a coffee-colored Cadillac?” Reggie says. “I don’t know if there’s such a thing, but if I ever see one, I’m buying it. I don’t care how much it costs.” He looks up at the blank screen, as if he could make out something there. “Once I buy it, I’ll just chill out in the backseat and crank up the radio.”
Suddenly, the movie projector whirls. The screen fills with life again. Cars screech and guns blast. “We probably won’t find Chuck Berry on the radio anymore,” Kurt says. “Can you believe that? What kind of country is it that forgets someone like Chuck Berry? That’s like losing something basic.”
We pull out of the rest stop. The highway climbs into the mountains and sky. Dropping from the clouds, pouring out of the ground and trees, a fog rolls over the road, covering things. We pass highway signs signaling exits, but the fog swallows them up.
“Have you ever been so tired while driving that you hallucinate and start to see shit?” Reggie asks. “I think I’m getting there.”
“Wasn’t Kurt so high once that he thought he saw Indians coming onto the road? They were pissed at us for ruining everything, and they wanted to take the land back.”
I ease my seat back. I think of my friends and where we’re all headed, and I think of the coffee-colored Cadillac, and of the sprawl, how it turns empty and lonely at the end of the day.
“One of these nights, I should get a good sleep,” Reggie says, as we keep moving, the highway blurring by, no end in sight.