Riding a motorcycle across the country you stumble into fascinating folks. Some are simply standouts from the crowd who tickle a fancy and make us smile, then fade into the dormant vaults of memory. But others are complete outliers; true anomalies. The ones who become embedded in our consciousness, emerging from time to time when mood or surroundings invoke them. They are the fascinating characters who enter our lives as a natural result of wandering.
For me, one of the greats was Saul.
We had spent the morning riding through the rolling prairies of eastern Wyoming. Open grassland stretched to squat mountains, treeless and exposed of rock strata in patches where grass refused to grow. The hot, dry air of late summer left the prairie brown with few hints of green. Blue sky dappled with oversized, puffy clouds stretched to the horizon in every direction. It was a seemingly endless land, where silence was broken only by the steady beat of our working engines and company was found only in the cattle and horses grazing by the road.
A town emerged on the horizon. Its buildings came as a distant promise to feed our stomachs and our tanks after hours of beautiful emptiness. A worn sign greeted us at the edge of town announcing, “Welcome to Lusk. Population 1427.” It did not take long to find the town’s only gas station, and pulling in we were met by the rich smell of grilling meat. It emanated from a giant contraption across the street in front of the town bar. The monster leaked smoke from every crack, burping a billowing puff each time it was opened; rising signals for the hungry traveler. The man cooking worked slowly, pausing periodically to drink his beer. Like mindless zombies pumping gas, we watched transfixed. Nothing needed to be said. We all knew where we were going next.
The bar was like any town dive: dim, walls decorated with neon signs proudly announcing their beer and a slight sheen of grease on every surface. Cowboys and cowgirls minded their lunch with only as much talk as necessary. We pulled tables together and sat as the waitress sauntered over looking annoyed. It was the expression worn by waitresses in diners and bars the world over, the one that said she was tired and had better things to be doing.
Without formality, she started, “Day’s special is burgers. They come in single or double. Everything else’s on the menu. What’ll ya’ll have?” Her eyes could have drilled holes in us. And under her pressing gaze, we defaulted to the special like timid schoolboys.
The more intelligent chose the single, keenly aware that we were in cattle country where meat portions are measured by standards very different than coastal California. The foolish – myself included – ordered the double and were soon presented with a monolith of ground beef reminiscent of Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The burger was nestled in horseshoe of fries that occupied every last bit of real estate the spacious plate had to offer.
“Are you gonna eat that?” Grant asked in awe.
“You’re crazy,” he said smirking as a double appeared before him.
Grant is a bastard. Nature dealt the man a genetic royal flush that allows him to eat such a ridiculous meal and still retain his rugged good looks and V-shaped back. He can wear clothes the rest of us would never dream of for fear of looking ridiculous. That day he had on a dark, indigo denim shirt with matching pants and a navy blue kerchief tied neatly around his neck.
The intimidating burger and his mesomorphic stature made me contemplate my physical insecurities: knock-kneed, kind of boxy, kind of paunchy, and perpetually awkward. But rather than addressing them, I attacked. “You look like a Ken doll in that getup.”
“Be quiet and eat your sandwich,” he replied in the chastising manner of an older brother.
Twenty minutes later every plate at the table was cleaned. We sat languidly, taking turns enumerating the reasons why we should never have finished what they served.
A lull of quiet contentedness swept over the table until Gilby piped up excitedly, “Did anyone see the sign for The Stagecoach Museum?”
“Let me guess. You want to go?” Grant asked rhetorically.
Gilby Clarke is a history nut. A bona fide junkie for all things old. He reads incessantly, studies maps with great focus, and loves the history channel beyond measure. When a string of documentaries gets his attention, he becomes immovable from the family’s plum-colored sectional sofa until hunger or exhaustion take him. His wife Daniella regularly laments his refusal to come to bed in lieu of a marathon of programs about cowboys, gunfights, or buried treasure. Each time it happens, she wakes the next morning to find him in the same spot she left him, still wide awake and engrossed. His addiction has fueled rumors that rock music is a ruse to hide the truth: that he is a tenured professor of American history at a liberal arts university. The allure of stagecoaches – tantamount to crack for Gilby – was too much to for him to resist.
“Wanna go?” he asked with an almost imperceptible bounce in his seat.
Debate erupted at the table that settled on yes. And though the town was small enough to see across, we saw fit to ride to the museum. Forty seconds and a hundred feet later, we were parked in front of Lusk’s cultural epicenter.
The Stagecoach Museum looked nothing like what one would guess. It was a castle. Two stories of red brick were capped by a stone parapet periodically notched for shooting at enemies while concealed. Turrets stood in relief of the façade on either side of the front door. In juxtaposition to the building, an American flag flew from a pole set in the manicured front lawn. The only objects revealing the building’s current purpose were a refurbished burgundy and yellow stagecoach and a sign above the door that read, “Stagecoach Museum.” Further above that was another sign that solved the building’s mysterious character: “WNG Armory.”
A short man with grey hair and a plaid shirt greeted us in the lobby. “Welcome to the museum,” he said in a voice jarring and unexpected for Wyoming. It took me back to a childhood in an Italian and Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia.
My best friend was a skinny and awkward Jewish kid named Vinny Fineburg. We rode bicycles together, spent hours watching bad movies, and bonded over the common foundation of his Jewish and my Catholic upbringing: guilt. But as kids, we periodically shelved such feelings of culpability for the stupidities of adolescent boys. One time we stole blueberry bushes from Vinny’s neighbor and planted them in his yard, agreeing it was the best way to ensure our own supply of berries. The day after our thievery, Vinny’s dad intercepted us in the kitchen on our way to water the bushes. He grabbed the scruffs of our necks and escorted us out the back door. Standing on the deck overlooking the yard, he asked in his thick New York accent what the hell we thought we were doing. It was then our error became clear. In our ravenous desire to have blueberries, we had planted the bushes in clear sight of the dirt holes we left in the neighbor’s lawn. Vinny’s dad began a steady tirade expounding why we were nogoodniks. During his rant, all I could focus on was his fascinating accent: nasal with r’s turned to w’s, w’s to o’s, o’s to aw’s, and r’s ending words like “idea” and “arugula,” which he used when he told us to start our own damn garden.
There, in the middle of Wyoming, was the same dialect. The man running the stagecoach museum spoke in a thick New York accent touched with clear hints of Yiddish.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I said, welcome to the museum,” he repeated himself with the annoyance of a New Yorker having to repeat himself.
“I heard what you said. It’s how you said it.”
“Ah, my accent. Catches people off guard. A rare animal in these parts, I am. From New York. Born and raised in the Bronx.” Before anyone could comment – he spoke rapidly and from the front of the mouth like all native New Yorkers – he continued, “It’s two dollars each. Clothes, weapons and tools are upstairs. Coaches outback. Basement’s fulla odds and ends. There’s a two-headed calf and an iron lung, if you boys are into such things. You need anything, name’s Saul.”
We paid and began perusing the items on display. I tried to pay attention, but a crushing curiosity brought me back to the museum’s most fascinating specimen. “Pardon my asking, but how the hell did you come from New York to Lusk?”
“Ah! Good question. Answer’s the same as always. Money and a woman. Went crazy for this pretty young thing and spent everything on her. Then she left me. Let me tell you son, being broke and New York don’t mix. City’s too damn expensive. So! I pulled out a U.S. map and picked a new state to live. Wyoming. Went to the library and found the cheapest town in the state and bought a bus ticket. That was twenty years ago.”
“Do you like it here?”
“Hell no. Town’s fulla inbred hicks all sleeping with each other.” Saul tilted his head and looked at me from just below his eyebrows as if entrusting a great secret. “You wanna know who’s screwin’ who? Why just the other side of the street is Old Lady…”
“If you don’t like it here, why do you stay?”
“Don’t have much family. And after all this time the place’s become my home. The people are my family. Yes, they’re dysfunctional. But aren’t all families?”
“What about your family in New York?”
“They stopped talking to me when I moved. New York Jews are a tight knit bunch, they are. Don’t like it when one of their own leaves. Especially for Wyoming.” Saul smiled jovially, but it belied a buried pain. The type of pain expertly created by family members who feel abandoned. I had seen it before in my family.
In the late ‘70s my dad’s brother Chuck left their northeastern home for Los Angeles. After falling in love with southern California, he settled in Ojai, a valley in the hills of Ventura county where folks grow avocados and artists. He was happy, but that was not good enough for my family. They perpetually degraded him, speaking mockingly of his life with a subtle viciousness thinly masked in humor. It was their way of coping with the fact that Chuck left under his own resolution and was happy somewhere other than their home town. Now Chuck smiles the same way when talking about family.
“Hey, we wanna get a picture,” Riki said poking his head in the door. “Can you do it?” he asked Saul.
“Hey Rachtman. Saul here’s one of your people.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.” Turning to Saul, he asked, “Is this moron bothering you? Because none of us like him. We found him on the side of the road.”
Saul smirked. “The old Lusk Free Press building’s out back. Great place for your photo.”
“Perfect,” Riki said handing Saul his iPhone.
“How the hell do ya work this?” he asked incredulously. “Damn contraption.”
“I’ll show you when we get there,” Riki said flatly, returning Saul’s annoyance.
Saul tried three phones and a digital camera, failing in succession with each as he fumbled with his reading glasses and cursed in Yiddish under his breath. He finally managed a single picture. It captured us on the porch as well as his reflection in the window, making it seem like he was standing there with us.
As we left the museum, Saul stood by the door. “You boys enjoy your motorcycle ride.”
“And be safe,” he continued.
“You sure you don’t want to know who’s doing who in Lusk?” he asked me.
“Not this time, Saul. But we’ll be back next year for Sturgis.”
“Sturgis? What’s that?”
“A motorcycle gathering in South Dakota.”
“OK, then. See you boys next year.”
Saul shook my hand and went inside. I walked down to meet the others who had congregated by the bikes preparing for more highway and sky.
JD mentioned his motorcycle was running hot, but with no clear problems we would continue south. Just a short time later the bike would overheat and spew a jet of gasoline from the tank into his face at 70 mph, forcing us to stop at The Hladky Family Ranch just outside of Lusk. There, a bunch of city slickers would spend the afternoon salting cattle and saddling horses.
But that is a story for another time.