Computing Across America, Chapter 16
by Steven K. Roberts
Gainesville, Florida — December 15, 1983
A variety of nothing is superior to a monotony of something.
— Jean Paul Richter
There it was at last: Florida. I could see the green sign far ahead on the last long stretch of Highway 17 in Georgia, and steeled myself for the bikini-clad phalanx of flesh that would be massed on the border, oiled and tan, blonde and firm…
But at the state line there was only a roadside park with a big sign. Like a tourist, I took a picture of it, feeling ludicrous as I peered about in search of the Beauty lurking behind the palmettos. Hmm. Nobody there. Ah well, down the road: I rode on to Yulee and mailed some “Hot damn, I’m in Florida!” postcards, then headed directly for the coast.
The day’s objective was Jacksonville, which I did not yet know was just a big, high-traffic, crime-ridden city. (Hell, it’s Florida, ain’t it?) I confirmed my accommodations with network acquaintances DarkStar and Fifi, then continued down the coast curiously unaccosted by young, tan women. There were few encounters of any sort — the only “road conversation” of this 96-mile day occurred on the St. John’s River ferry, where a lady directing rush-hour commuter traffic pointed at the bike and squeaked, “Oooohhh, that’s cute!”
Two days later I was southbound, happy to have escaped Jacksonville traffic. The land was open and rolling, prowled by hunters in pickups and locals in old cars — the sunny Sunday had the feel of country holiday about it.
I strolled into the woods near Middleburg to relieve myself, then returned to find a tattered white station wagon parked by my bike. Three teenagers sat in the front seat, watching my approach.
I flashed ’em a grin. “Is nothing sacred?”
“Uh, well, we’re from the Baptist Church up the road,” the driver began.
“We saw you pedaling and just wondered if you’d like to come have dinner with us.”
“Why, thank you… though I do have to make Gainesville today.” I bent to look into the car. There were two guys flanking a girl in a pretty gingham dress. She smiled up at me and added, “We’ll be singing afterwards, too!”
“It’s right up there,” said the driver, pointing. “You can follow us.” A few minutes later I was sinking into the loose dirt of the church parking lot as the whole congregation poured out to welcome me. Their annual smorgasbord was in progress, and after the show-n-tell I was led into a long room and loosed upon the bounty of their table. The womenfolk of the flock hovered about: “Here, honey, have some of this! Do you want some chicken? Now this is my old family pumpkin pie recipe — be sure and save yourself some room. No, no, here, let me just wrap a piece up for you.”
Halfway through my meal, the preacher introduced himself — a robust, ruddy fellow in suspenders. He clasped my hand and wouldn’t let go, pumping it warmly as he fixed my gaze in his and beamed with the pure rapture of the Lord. These were an uncomplicated people, friendly and open, and it was with a kind of embarrassed regret that I declined the invitation to join them in postprandial hymns.
As I packed the foil-wrapped pieces of pie and cake on the bike, I recalled the very different crowd that had last plied me with pastries…
Less than two hours later, I was pedaling toward Gainesville on busy Highway 301, munching pumpkin pie and still warmed by the kindness of the folks in Middleburg.
Suddenly there was trouble. An 18-wheeler was bearing down hard, not slowing, the driver leaning rudely on his air horn. He could have easily changed lanes to pass — but no. I watched the mirror in growing panic, abandoning the pavement as he blew by and nearly felled me in a powerful blast of air. Bouncing on rough dirt, I dropped the pie and skidded to a stop.
I was shaking with rage: the bastard could have killed me.
I grabbed the microphone and switched on the CB radio to channel 19.
“You, sir, are an asshole!” I shouted into the ether.
There was a moment’s pause. Then a voice came back: “Now who the sehell you be callin’ an asshole?”
“The incompetent trucker with the ugly blue rig that just blew me off the road!” Rarely do I lose my calm: I’ll do anything to avoid a fight. But I actually wanted him to stop and come back to face me — I wanted to empty my can of CS riot-control agent into his face and then go to work with my finely honed stainless-steel dagger. A frightening thing is rage.
“You mean to tell me you got a CB on that thing? How the hell ya power it?”
“That’s not the point!” I shouted in frustration. “You made me drop my pumpkin pie, God damn it! Not to mention almost killing me.”
“Well, sorry about that, buddy. Didn’t know you had a radio on that there rig. Hey, Snake-eyes! Gotchyer ears on back there?”
Another voice crackled from the speaker. “Yeah, four. What’s all this about spillin’ that ol’ boy’s pumpkin pie?”
“You see that stretched-out bicycle rollin’ southbound?”
“Naw, can’t say as I have.”
“Where you at?”
“We be just comin’ up on the Hampton cutoff.”
“You’ll see him, then. Be careful now, the boy’s got him a hot temper. Get on over in the passin’ lane and be real careful. I’m puttin’ the hammer down up here cause I don’t want him comin’ up on my donkey with that thing, ten-fo’?”
“Yeah, four, I heard that. OK there, buddy, I’ll keep these here snake eyeballs on the lookout for him. If we was makin’ that Atlanta run we done last week, we could lay a whole new pie on the dude. Hey, here he is now, up on the shoulder. What the hell kinda rig is that, anyway?”
The second trucker passed with a toot of his horn. “Hello,” I said tiredly into the microphone, too deflated to press the attack. Without waiting for the inevitable questions, I switched off the radio and resumed my trek.
My first hosts in Gainesville were a trio of women — a network acquaintance and her roommates. The house was too small for all of us, and for a few days I worked on articles and cooked a few meals, never really comfortable. We were of different cultures, the ladies and I: they rather enjoyed the ambience of a place called Dub’s.
I went out with them one night, curious about Gainesville’s bar scene. It was the night of the miniskirt contest, an event that promised heart-pounding delight. Eager and wide-eyed, I stepped inside.
Dub’s was a noisy redneck rock club. I joined the mostly male throng, drawing hostile stares with my short nylon shorts in this beery Levi’s crowd. We found a spot near the runway, since I had insisted we arrive early enough to secure a good view.
The term “miniskirt contest” was a bit of a euphemism — Gainesville had recently undergone a political cleanup of the lucrative sex business. There wasn’t a miniskirt in sight, but I saw lots of skimpy lingerie as the girls strutted their stuff to the cheers of the crowd. Each round of eliminations was dictated by the level of rowdy applause, and they settled at last upon a honey-thighed victor who accepted her cash prize with a whoop-inducing flash of white breast. All very thrilling, I suppose, but so blatantly commercial that it left me cold.
But like everyone else in the place, cold or not, I had been holding off the diuretic effects of beer until the end of the exhibitionist extravaganza. Over a hundred horny and frustrated men with full bladders converged on the bathroom.
I stood in line for a while, then finally made it to the door. The scene was appalling. Guys were urinating not only where they were supposed to, but in the sinks and wastebasket as well. I grinned at the two standing in drunken bliss at the sinks and said, “Hey! I came in here to brush my teeth!” I sorta figured this would be regarded as funny.
One tattoed character looked me up and down, not liking what he saw. “Well you’re in the wrong goddamn place, motherfucker.”
Another snarled, “Yeah, what the fuck you doin’ in this end of town, college boy? There’s a wimp bar down by campus.” He threw his cigarette into a urine-filled trash can and took a step toward me.
I started to offer a conciliatory comment, but I was saved by the beer. “Hurry the fuck up!” growled a giant waiting in the doorway. “I’m about to goddamn explode out here!”
I slipped out, relieved but unrelieved, found the ladies and left. We timidly waited for a bloody parking-lot fight to move away from the car before we could jump in and drive off.
I left the women and moved in with the owners of Pedalers, a premiere bicycle shop. Now this was more like it: I fell into easy friendship with them, staying a week to play catch-up with various magazine projects. I entertained their dog, made cheesecake, cruised the University of Florida <pang>, rode with the local touring club, gave the bike a long-needed tune-up, and saturated the Gainesville news with a round of interviews.
One media event took place with Brenda LeDun, a bright-eyed reporter with TV channel 20. We met at Pedalers, and I rolled the freshly bathed Winnebiko out into the parking lot as she and her camera crew arrived for the shooting. This was PR for the shop as well as for me — the least I could do after their excellent hospitality and good deals on service.
The interview was typical: an upbeat look at a high-tech nomad passing through town. I explained the bike, computer, and gear; I rhapsodized about the new work style made possible by portable computers and information networks. I was about to roll around the parking lot for the cameras when an angry man strode up to Brenda and identified himself as the owner of a competing bicycle business in the row of shops next door.
“You’re parked in our lot,” he said in brusque petulance. “If you don’t do the interview over there, I’m gonna call the cops and have them give you a ticket.”
This was too outlandish to be true, so she shrugged him off with a smile and an apology, saying we would be just a few more minutes. But as I pedaled around the block under the unblinking zoom eye of a minicam, a police car arrived and ticketed the TV20 car for illegal parking.
It was my last night with my hosts. I knew it because I felt the fever gripping me, felt the ache. It’s not polite to get sick in someone’s home, and I had already stayed long enough that a protracted feverish siege would have left me racked with guilt.
I decided to go for it and packed listlessly, shivering with cold. Ocala was only about forty miles south, and I planned to splurge on a motel and ride out the illness alone. Trying to hit the road in that condition was irrational, but I couldn’t stay where I was.
Whimpering with an ache so all-pervasive that I couldn’t mouth a specific complaint, I dragged my load up the street and headed for town. I immediately had a flat tire, and sat by the road in utter defeat for half an hour before I could bring myself to fix it. The day was dark and cold, and I almost curled up to sleep in the bushes.
By the time I had ridden the seven miles into town from my friends’ suburban house, I knew I could make it no further. It was painful to hold the bike upright at stop lights; it hurt to turn my head. Somebody idling beside me at an intersection asked about the solar panels (“Hey, I saw you on TV! How much power does that solar setup put out?”) and I was too exhausted to acknowledge the question.
It was time to visit Gram. During the previous week, I had paid a couple of visits to my new family members — grandmother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins. We had shared a few meals and discussed my history, but hadn’t really become close. This would be a good time to get to know them.
I left the bike in front of Gram’s place and knocked. The sweet white-haired lady slowly opened the door, giving me a big loving grin the moment she saw who it was. But I could only mumble a shivering hello, brush past her, and curl up beside her kerosene heater.
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