I arrived in Lincoln on Monday. I didn’t see my first USC fan until Wednesday night. The game was on Saturday. In the intervening time, to anyone who would listen, I explained my presence with an emphatic repetition of the first sentence above: “I’ve been here since Monday.” Judging by local reactions it was an effective way to evoke just how long this trip is going to be. One guy mock saluted me, bought me a beer and said “You’re gonna need this. Most people get here Friday and run out of things to do that night.”
He is wrong. He is right in that I spent a goodly amount of time Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday driving between the Barnes and Noble on O Street (where I read, among other things: Friday Night Lights, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, Saturday Rules and Johnny Cash’s autobiography Cash, by Johnny Cash) and the University of Nebraska’s library for want of anything to do, a state exacerbated by my at least theoretical presence in College Football Town, USA and the coming shadow of Lee Corso, whose eyes are the blank gray temples of atavism seen only in the better class of Conan the Barbarian-esque novellas.
His eyes may actually be blue, but that pitiless gaze is the same color as the stone used by the acolytes of Set when they built their blood stained ziggurats in Stygia-by-the-sea.
Saturday – game day – was an Event. The sky dawned a bold blood orange slammed beneath a marble slab of clouds so uniformly flat it looked like a parking lot suspended, upside down, thousands of feet above the ground. Apocalypse was in the air, as was Marlboro light. I shotgunned beverages called Beer 30 at 7:35 AM. I beheld a sign proclaiming, in words bold and proud, “John David Booty, which of course in German means a whale’s vagina” and watched it confiscated by the Gameday crew only to be regained by an elite task force assembled from the spare and sober parts of a formless, shapeless mass of writhing drunk Husker undergrads and ferried, Victor Laszlo-like, from the Vichy controlled underlings of college football’s flagship show to the bright American dawn of the southwest stands where red clad lovables popped the sign up again and again to the cheers of more than 13,000 fans alternatively screaming, between subtle Allied-Axis clashes in North Africa and the fenced in perimeter that was Home Depot’s designated spotlight area, “Hide the sign! Hide the sign!” and “Give it back! Give it back!”, and nary a sound was heard from Louis about all of this as he grinned his French grin and palmed bribes. I played Polish horseshoes, which is not, as the name suggests, a form of water polo. I was blamed for the aromatic assault left by the female ahead of me in the bathroom line at a house party near Lincoln Memorial Stadium, which prompted me to point at her and say “That’s her poop particles floating into your nose, not mine. I only had to pee,” and not feeling bad about it as she, in typical female fashion, cut ahead of me with nothing but a I’ll-be-sooooo-fast. I saw my family for ten minutes, then left by shouting “I’ll see you in South Bend!”, which, as you will agree, is pretty hardcore given that Notre Dame’s obliteration lay five weeks in the future. I gained an early head start on the Rapture when USC led 42-10. I had an alright time.
None of that was apparent on Thursday evening though, when I was sitting at Iguana’s minding my own longneck and wondering when the hell this town was gonna start being Lincoln. Three and a half days of niceness:
Me, to myself and to others but, really, to myself and with a lot more strained desperation than indicated: Nice people around here. Nice little campus you have here. Nice, that’s a sweet Husker Power wallet. Oh, that’s a nice deal on buffalo wings (10 cents per on Wednesdays at Brother’s). Nice offer of nachos, too (free on Tuesdays at Iguana’s). Yeah, Southern California is a nice place to live but it sure is nice here, too. Hey, does that movie theater serve beer and pizza? Nice. Shoot me, please, then time warp my body to Saturday where they have revivification and football.
One thing that was not nice – nice, here, indicating all that is lovely but un-Apocalyptically college football – was/is Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. As explained before, my first experience with Memorial on Monday was religious in tone and, much like Paul of Tarsus, I jumped the barbed wire at the southwest corner of the facility to get a look at what was, during large parts of the 1990s, college football’s Jerusalem. Unlike Paul I was not arrested and did not die languishing in a prison in Rome; instead, I roamed the innards of the facility and looked at the floodlights, the grass, the big N and the burning bush at the center of the field from which there came a voice:
Let there be football. And it will not be nice. Now get ye to Knickerboxer’s on Thursday for taco night.
(In my universe the Judeo-Christian overbeing is concerned with happy hour appetizer specials as well as the fate of your child, family, nation, team, etc.)
Being in a stadium by yourself is one of my favorite things about sports. The happier sort of accident made possible by evolution allows your brain – normally an epically badass device developed over millions of years to allow you, the byproduct of an unfathomably cruel and protracted and, worst of all, necessary game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, to do amazing things like recall and write the English alphabet and drink potable water from a glass and fly airplanes and such – to seize upon itself in a moment of glorious mendacity and tell you – aka, You, the nominal leader of your nervous ganglia which are at that moment revolting or at least demanding benefits commensurate with similar industries – things which aren’t true but, let’s face it, might as well be. You can imagine these untruths without batting an eye (which is a hell of a thing to do, as both actions involve that epically badass device you call a brain). You can see the empty stands full, serried ranks of humanity stretching into ovals, ellipses, geoids, horseshoes, oblongs, wearing colors primordial and sub-cortical. You can hear it because the silence magnifies what takes place on Saturdays and suddenly there you are, deafened by ghost explosions. Most of all you can feel the presence of the thousands of others who have come before and it makes the empty stadium, of all things, claustrophobic. You can also be blissfully unaware of cameras and security which, as Steve Ryan of BigRedReport.com told me over beers four days after I snuck into Memorial, must’ve been too amused by my awww-shucks awe to arrest me like they should’ve. And if you strain hard enough, you can catch the faintest whiff of iron tang mixed with photosynthesis pleated and formed into twenty-two rectangles, one for every angel and devil; the sundry smell of athletic tape so like vanilla smeared into glue; animal sweat; dry heaving fear the color of red clay; the scent of ozone almost visible where a receiver ran wild through the atmosphere just a year ago. I am reminded of Pynchon:
Now there grows among all the rooms, replacing the night’s old smoke, alcohol, and sweat, the fragile musaceous odor of Breakfast; flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy of the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjuror’s secret by which — though it is not often Death is told clearly to fuck off — the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations… so the same assertion-through-structure allows this warm morning’s banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail. Is there any reason not to open every window, and let the kind scent blanket all Chelsea? As a spell, against falling objects…
My visit to Memorial filled me with the Spirit, and I set upon Lincoln-Damascus with a fervor and a little bit of the Fear: talking with everyone I met, explaining my mission, seeking the color red in its every form, drinking with an abandon that laughed in the face of my meticulously updated-and-then-ignored budget, searching for a glimpse of that gorgeous stadium beneath the full Moon of Floodlights somewhere else even if it was at the bottom of a pint of Blue Moon… anything to find what what I was looking for, even if it was a jar of ether.
What did I find? A bunch of nice people, but this is Lincoln, Nebraska: a nice little town. Nothing that told me, on Saturday, the entire state would work itself into a blood frenzy and by 7:13 PM Central the third largest gathering of human beings in the state of Nebraska would find themselves all standing, watching USC’s David Buehler kick it short to Andre Jones at the Nebraska 18 and there he goes, 16 yards and here comes Sam Keller….
So there I was on Thursday night sipping my beer and attempting to not mind my own business. That’s when I met Brad and Cole. One of them probably still thinks I’m from Bolivia, because mojitos come from Cuba which is nowhere near Brazil which begins with a B and is in South America and is right next to Bolivia. This happy confusion is emblematic of the larger happy confusion of my being in Nebraska at the same time as them, which, as Brad’s girlfriend Anna put it when I left on Sunday morning, “is something out of a movie”. The next 60 hours or so of my life, except for a number of sixty minutes spent with fellow USC fans aching to know whether freshman receiver Brandon Carswell would redshirt and similar Freemasonish secrets only raving USC lunatics want to know, would be directed by the motley cast below…
The Adopt-a-Bolivian campaign has really come out swinging.
Brad and Cole and I met over mojitos, which is indeed very much like a movie but the kind that involves a slumming John Cusack and Diane Lane/Meg Ryan/etc. I derided their drinks, which were made with a single mint leaf and plenty of Rose’s lime juice. That’s not how you make mojitos. This is how you make mojitos.
I see you’ve played barstool-bartender before.
Eventually I came to be known as “the dude from Bolivia” because, as drunks all know, mojitos originated in Bolivia and velveeta tastes good. Later on when cultures clashed and the Nebraskans couldn’t understand something particularly Californian or at least non-Nebraskan (“You’re cold? WTF?”) we consoled ourselves by laughing at the differences between Lincoln and Bolivia, which is how the USSR and Reagan-era America should’ve done it. Brad and Cole offered to show me around Lincoln, which meant getting pitchers of an orange-ish concoction at Sandy’s, heading to Main Street (the bar) to take tequila shots to the dome and ending the night at a place I can’t remember the name of where I danced with a number of females, all of them black, all of them amused and all of them deigning to allow me to gyrate arhythmically next to them with nary a punch to my face, though perhaps they were a bit violent after all because my upper arms were sore the next morning when I awoke on B&C’s couch but, now that I think about it, it’s possible the fleshy bruising above my triceps was due to the amusing and inevitable wrestling match B&C engaged in once back at the house after, before and between shotgunning Beer 30, waking up their female housemate and demanding that I avail myself of all of their amenities including the shower, which I hadn’t used in four or five days at that point but would need shortly due to my attempting to keep B from powerbombing C which, as you doubtless do not need me to tell you, is a no no. If a man wants to powerbomb another man that is his prerogative, and let no man rent asunder the union of two men grappling, one about to hurl the other from four to five feet high unto the floor, because it is good.
This violence, so long hidden during the days of Mon-, Tues- and Wednes-, cropped up every now and then and validated everything I wanted to know about Nebraska, Nebraska football, and the sucking maw of suck that was Big Red post-1997. The state has less than two million residents, but the dominance it exuded from 1994 to Tom Osborne’s final year was, for anyone who wasn’t in a cave during the nineties, the kind of absolute manifestation of supremacy over land, water, air and especially fire the Americans demonstrated with Little Boy and Fat Man in 1945. We were, all of us who did not cheer for Big Red, awed at this terrible display of power; and every now and then, as I was gamely welcomed by everyone wearing that same primordial red, I would get this sense as I gazed up into the eyes of a 6’4″ corn-fed Heartlander that, if he really wanted to, he could pick me up and snap me in twain and use the rounder half in a power back formation where he would, after running most of the way, pitch demi-me to Mike Rozier for the touchdown and the glory because that was the kind of program Nebraska had, baby, and here, let me buy you a drink. Welcome to Nebraska! Try the prime rib at Misty’s!
Make no mistake about confidence: Bill Callahan has managed, in a scant three and one quarter seasons, to reduce Nebraskans’ expectations of their team to the point where almost no one – and that includes the Husker football student manager I talked to for several hours – would predict anything but a loss. There were many signs around town with prophecies of 21-20 Nebraska or 13-10 Nebraska, etc., but all of them were last second fantasies produced by the more naive set of residents. This state knows its football and they knew Nebraska would lose – but to hell with that, California boy, we’ll show you how we do it in Nebraska! I was reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
Now that’s cheesy. But it’s also true – or else why show up thirteen thousand strong and still counting at eight in the morning?
Do not antagonize Nebraska fans. Don’t believe me? Click on the above and look at the white sign at the bottom left corner.
For those of you too lazy to click on the above, let me summarize that sign for you:
MARK MAY KNOWS FOOTBALL LIKE I KNOW EUROPEAN TAPESTRY
So let me now contribute this addendum to Harper Lee’s memorable book: courage isn’t a man with a gun in his hand – it’s a man with a sign that reads “MARK MAY KNOWS FOOTBALL LIKE I KNOW EUROPEAN TAPESTRY”.
Courage can also be defined as a sign combining aspects of Stewart Bradley, Nebraska’s stand out linebacker who was drafted by the Eagles in the third round of the 2007 draft, with the body and legs of a horse to produce a centaur, a kind of visual play on words given the Trojan Horse. Why is this courageous? Because the intrepid man who performed this feat of strength never knew Bradley. The idea for it came up over a period of years during which the creator and a number of friends had repeated run-ins with Bradley – none of them direct and certainly none of them violent – and were wowed, again and again, by his “almost animal” look and the understanding that, if this were Hiyao Miyazaki’s world, Bradley would’ve been born the magical, mythical creature that is a centaur. Said creator found his picture of Bradley – wearing the black shirt signifying a starter on Nebraska’s defense – during a party at a football player’s house and gamely swiped it; after several months with that poster and additional pictures he intended to use to make this centaur come alive he began to worry that, some day, another footballer would come to his house during a party and wonder, not without reason, why there appeared to be a shrine of some sort to Stewart Bradley. And that would beget violence. As Bradley’s collegiate playing days neared an end and the dream of creating a centaur poster out of him began to pick up, one cohort explained shakily:
“Me and [Bradley] were in the same class last year and he kept looking at me. It freaked me out. I kept thinking, “Shit. Shit. What if he knows? What if he knows we think he looks like a centaur? And that we’ve been thinking this for years? And that we’re gonna turn him into a sign? What if he knows?” Because centaurs can sense that kind of thing. But he just stared through me in that Stewart Bradley way.”
I am waiting for an email with a picture to explain, but make no doubt about it: my coming unto Memorial Stadium the second of three times was heralded by no less than a centaur named Stewart Bradley straight out of Narnia, and the rest of the day took on the surreal tint of fantasy with one flick of a Kinko-enlarged horse tail.
Waiting no longer… thank you to Anna of Omaha for the picture. And the DD’ing. And the Georgia peach. And….
I cannot tell you in all honesty what took place Saturday. It was a day of wonders. I assaulted myself with alcohol, tobacco and narcotics. A star fell from the sky in the West, and we took it for an omen. I think Atlantis rose again. Somewhere in there, a game was played. Some of it was honorable; some of it was a farce; and somehow, USC kicked off the first half and the second half with… kickoffs? But from 7:35 AM to two in the morning, the kind of energy that was lacking for the first half of my stay in Lincoln manifested itself at last and everywhere there was fire and wind and floodlights. It felt like the End of the World, and I had a Ticket to Section 20. Lincoln was, at long last, something more than just nice: it was, once again, after so long and for at least a few moments, College Football Town, USA.
The next day I drove to Marion, Illinois. Why? Because a guy named blemblam (not his real name, which is much more ridiculous) has shepherded me from day one and provided tickets, encouragement and, in this case, an actual hotel room in Marion. He is emblematic of the kindness I’ve seen on the road, though he does not represent the unexpected kindnesses that have been so wonderful and satisfying because his was wholly expected: he is good people. Whatever else I’ve learned while traveling – and there have been many lessons, mainly involving what to do after getting robbed – always bows to this one final dictum: when you least expect it, people will go out of their way to help you. And when you do expect it though you shouldn’t because nothing is ever certain, they come through in ways that are unimaginable even if you have, like me, an imagination that doesn’t need the aid of hallucinogens.
So what else was I to do when, leaving Nebraska and on my way to Marion, I spotted a guy holding a hitchhiking thumb up on an on-ramp for US 29 South near the Nebraska-Iowa border? His sign said “St. Joseph, 90 miles”. I pulled over, and he got in.
Wilson is 53. I found this out haphazardly as I found out most things about him. He rambled on in an admirable way, switching quickly to new subjects with a zest to make them his own in the manner of incorrigibly unsettling strangers who colonize conversation topics the way the conquistadors did the Americas: with the brute force of blunt ideology and the septic casualness that comes from a lifetime of marginal living and smallpox immunity.
Physically Wilson is dessicated, burnt skin, unshaven and surrounded by that deep down smell you only get by not showering or washing your clothes for more than ten days. Except for the dessication I know it all very well. My first indication that it would be an interesting ride was when, not two miles from where I picked him up, we passed another hitchhiker with a sign that said “St. Joseph”. I asked Wilson if we should stop for him, though I added it’d be a tight fit given that my backseat is actually a bed filled with belongings.
“Fuck ‘im,” he said, and I drove on. Right about then I thought several things: 1) This is going to make good copy. 2) If he knifes me in the throat while I’m driving then we both die, so it would behoove me to not pull over again. 3) I wonder what he thinks about Florida pantsing Tennessee?
Turns out Wilson don’t give a fuck about Tennessee. In fact, they’re all a bunch of liars down there. Florida ain’t so bad. Good weather, nice looking titties. If they did beat the living shit outta Tennessee then good on them.
(“This really is going to make good copy,” I thought to myself, but quietly, because I’ve read/seen enough Stephen King to know that hitchhikers have a good fifty percent chance of being telepathic.)
We talk for a good hour on the way to St. Joseph. Wilson worked a lot of construction, did odd jobs on the Gulf Coast and ended up in Shreveport, Louisiana six or seven years before Katrina. This prompts me to ask him if he ever saw Evangel Christian HS play, because USC’s starting quarterback John David Booty played for ECHS and was the first high schooler to skip his senior year entirely and wasn’t that something?
“I ain’t a Christian,” Wilson replies. Thus ended one string of our conversation.
Wilson drops in these conversation enders every now and then, but for the most part he converses freely about old jobs, women, politics (all of Louisiana is corrupt and will fall into a pit soon enough), food, culture, old TV shows, Dick Butkus (“He was meaner than Hell and that’s the only way you ought to play”), the uselessness of basketball, hockey, soccer, golf, etc. compared to baseball and football, cars, and Merle Haggard.
(I resist the temptation to instantly blurt out “Merle Haggard haggard!”)
Wilson is, if not exactly enthusiastic, supportive of my road trip: “You’ve got to get out and see the world. If I had stayed in Texas it woulda been shit.”
On the subject of traveling: “I get treated like shit a lot. You’d be surprised how many people out there’d kill you as soon as look at you. Being poor is a crime in America.”
On kindness on the road: “Sometimes you find it. But more often than not it’s just cops hassling you and people asking you to leave. When all I wanna do is sleep it can be hell. Just so much shit to deal with just to sleep, you know? Hitchhiking ain’t what it used to be.”
On Baton Rouge: “Don’t go there. Stay away.”
On college football: “Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s my team. Fuck Texas. Nothing good ever happened to me there.”
As we get closer to St. Joseph I ask Wilson what’s there, to which he replies, “My daughter.” It’s as emphatic a conversation ender as he’s uttered, and I step away from the gaping abyss with a deft shuffle that would make any corner proud. I let him off near an exchange leading to St. Joseph and he thanks me then turns around without even a wave and walks off.
And now I’m in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to watch Western Kentucky play Middle Tennessee State. And after that Alabama. Let me say this for the south so far: no one’s allowed me to pay for a meal or a drink yet.
States visited: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee.
Miles traveled: 3,400ish.
Times towed: Once. But I walked two miles to get my car back, so there.
Games watched (at least partially): West Virginia/Maryland, Oklahoma State/Troy, Pittsburgh/Michigan State, Notre Dame/Michigan, Nebraska/USC
Family members seen: Two.
Duration of family time: Ten minutes, because no one wants to miss kickoff.
USC Panic-Meter: Low. Too low. Oh my god. Something bad’s going to happen, isn’t it?