Walking in St. Augustine, looking for a purpose in a golden sign

April 3 – I dropped off Becky and Max at the beach and walked the mile or so to the McDonald’s outpost at the intersection of A1A and 312.
It was a nice walk. I chatted with my buddy OB via cellphone. Along the way, a slender black snake uncoiled before me and then retreated into the adjacent underbrush.
A school bus stopped to discharge students. A mop-headed kid, maybe a 10th-grader, bent his head out the window and shouted “hey.”
I looked up, and he yelled, “Got any weed?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I’m sure he was having sport with me. I note, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, that I look fairly clean today. We found our way to the nearby YMCA this morning. We worked out for the first time in weeks. More significantly, we showered for the first time in 10 days. Shaved, showered, feeling good.
No weed, though. Sorry, dude.
I’m sure I looked like a dirty, old hippie when I awoke this morning. Speaking of old, the nice woman behind the counter here rang me up for a senior coffee. I think that’s the first financial benefit I’ve reaped from the relentless passage of the years.
“I know you’re not a senior,” she said, hedging her bets.
I smiled and allowed I was close enough.
“You and I we’re getting close enough we should get some of the benefits,” she said.
At 50, I’ve learned to drink real coffee. I’ve kicked the mocha habit. Now I drink too much coffee. All of which reminds me of what Shelley Via Smulsky told me two weeks ago at her house in Waynesboro,
“Forty is the old age of youth, and 50’s the youth of old age,” she said.
I guess it feels good to be young again.
But McDonald’s … We’re part of the culture now. It makes no sense to pretend we are a thing apart, just because we started coming here for the “free” wireless Internet.
It is a brilliant marketing idea, though. As if McDonald’s needed to expand its customer base. Much like Walton Family General Store lets RV travelers stay for free. Even if you think Walmart might be symbolic for all that’s wrong with this country, you’re going to wake up and wander in to brush your teeth and use the restroom. You might need some eggs for breakfast. Hey, they got ’em here, and they are priced reasonably.
I don’t go on Facebook often, but I did yesterday. Saw something about Walmart ranking No. 1 in ratio of CEO salary to wages earned by the average worker. Walmart CEO Michael T. Dukes makes more than $23 million a year. That’s more than 1,000 times the median wages earned by store employees. And that’s not taking into consideration all the awful sweat shop stuff going on overseas.
We need to get strong and stop being Walmart shoppers.

******

Anyway, I embark on this post in an effort to jump-start my writing, which continues to lag behind. We’re still looking for a place to hole up, and still looking for someone to fix our sputtering engine.
Speaking of which, I just got off the phone with my friend Mark. He says the folks who buy, fix and sell RVs on a little slice of land along U.S. 1 between the Walmart and McDonald’s might fix my problem for a little love.
By love, he meant they’ll likely fix it for free if I agree to accept Jesus as my savoir.  I didn’t have time to tell him chapter and verse about the day I got saved in a broken-down general store in Indian Trail, N.C. It was the fall of 2003. Here it is in skeletal form. Becky, bless her heart, held to her beliefs.
Me? I’ll do anything for a story. That’s why I allowed a country preacher, who had to be summoned from beneath a pickup truck to attend to my immortal soul, to save me.
I told Mark I might take the behemoth by tomorrow and see what the Jesus hippies say. Perhaps I’ll get saved again. I don’t know if this is even possible, to be saved a second time. I’m not sure what the theologians would say.
I just want to get the behemoth running smoothly. If it takes my soul, well, I’ll cross that metaphysical bridge when I come to it.
I guess I should introduce you to Mark. Right now he’s driving through rain north of here, bearing down on the Georgia line.  He’s driving his 30-foot Ford Maverick RV, towing an old Mercedes he picked up in southern Florida. He came into some money a while back after nearly getting killed in a house fire. His entire scalp was burned off.
A smoke alarm malfunctioned. He spent 18 days in a coma. So he got a bit of money and bought a bunch of cars and boats and a house or two.
He’s 
got a VW Beatle in a parking lot near Nashville, Tenn. Yesterday we had lunch at a burrito place. The former owner, a woman named Rachel, sold him a 1969 Pearson sailboat for $7,000. He later sold it off for $4,000. Mark’s my kind of businessman.
We  r
an into Mark on Monday night. We had just pulled into the lot at the St. Augustine branch of the Walton Family General Store.
You find out a lot about the magic of serendipity when you’re on the road looking for stories. Because sometimes they just force themselves on you when you’re doing your best to run from them. This is how I met Mark.
We were ready to leave the St. Augustine Walmart. A series of “No Overnight Parking” signs were posted around the lot. We were moving on, looking for safe refuge where towing wasn’t a possibility.
Becky had gone into the store to get some water, and one of the associates explained it wasn’t store policy, just a St. John’s County ordinance.
Anyway, she was back. I sat in the driver’s seat. I tapped my fingers on the wheel impatiently while she struck up a conversation with the guy in the next RV over. It was a Toyota Winnebago Warrior, like ours, but a bit smaller. This guy had been sitting in his own driver’s seat staring straight ahead since we arrived. Maybe he was sleeping.
When he told Becky he was getting 18-22 miles per hour, I wanted dig out my eyes with the ignition key. I gave her a withering look. She couldn’t quite break away. He had a hold of her. When he mentioned something about having been a professional boxer for nine years, I threw in the towel, grabbed my recorder and joined the fray.
Next thing I knew, I was in the back of his rig. He said he helped train Mark Wahlberg for “The Fighter.” Damn if he didn’t have a photo of him and Marky Mark, side-by-side and grinning. He had other photos, too. Joe Frazier. Rocky Marciano. He has a Boston accent.
Said his name is Arturo Augustine Valerio. Something like that. I found no record of a boxer with a similar name.
He also had a keyboard back there, and I saw a piece of paper with chord progressions jotted down. Said he’s got a cool, old guitar, too. Asked if I wanted to see it. I said no. Because then I would’ve had to play it. Then I would’ve been embarrassed. Arturo said he Likes to plug in his stereo and play along with B.B. King.
Wish I could manage some of that single-string wizardry associated with the Blues Boy from Indianola, Miss.
While this was unfolding, another guy showed up at the door of Arturo’s rig. He knows “Artie.” It was Mark. He had just come from the Walmart. He had a bag of potato chips and a couple Schlitz tall boys. He got to talking with Becky.
He asked her where we’d come from. She said Pennsylvania.
He said:
“You ever heard of a musician named Jefferson Pepper?”
To say this question struck us like a lightning bolt out of a blue sky comes up just short of hyperbole. It freaked me out a bit. I kept thinking maybe he’d somehow circled around behind the behemoth and had noticed our tiny Jefferson Pepper sticker. My paranoia was bubbling up to the surface. Maybe something sinister was afoot.
No offense to our great friend J-Pep, because he deserves this kind of recognition. It was as if we had just played the old word-association game, and the word Mark associates with Pennsylvania is “Jefferson Pepper.”
Floored. Becky screamed, “He’s one of our best friends!”
We have it recorded digitally for posterity.

That’s how we came across Mark. He assured us it was safe to camp here and we wouldn’t go towed. Once in a great while, he said, someone from the St. John’s sheriff department came by in the middle of the night and rousted campers with a bullhorn.
I spent some time in Mark’s RV.  Then we chatted in the adjacent McDonald’s the following morning. The wifi was down, so we had little to do but talk. He’s an inventor: part madman, part obscure genius.
It’s tough to tell where the dividing line between genius and insanity rests. But Mark is a friendly, generous sort. How generous? Yesterday he spent half the day trying to figure out what’s wrong with the behemoth. He didn’t have much luck.
As an inventor, his primary inspiration is Buckminster Fuller.
He calls him Bucky Fuller. Mark’s designed geodesic cars. He’s working on amphibious vehicles now. I’ll get into all this in greater detail later. I’ve been saying that a lot lately.
He told me he likes to spend hours ranting on Facebook. He’s got Facebook friends with names like Rainbow Citizen and Cherokee Sunshine.
Later in the afternoon, after Mark had removed the distributor cap and put it back and examined our air filter and puzzled over the behemoth’s engine for a bit, we went to lunch at a place called Stir it Up. Rastaman Vibration!
Mark drove. He wanted to get a feel for the engine.
Only later did Becky tell me we broke one of Jack Donaghy’s cardinal rules: Never go with a hippie to a second location. We visited a local Advance Auto Parts. Mark asked how much an EGR valve would cost. More than three hundred bucks. He was appalled.
We went back to the beach. He got on his back in the sand and tried to pry loose the O2 sensor. No luck.
Mark said he sold
 weed to Jerry Garcia’s daughter when she was 14. She had pink hair. He thought that was off.
I found Mark almost restrained on Tuesday morning. He had changed his clothes, which is more than I can say. He was not nearly as voluble the previous night, when he invited me into his camper and told me about the 12 cars and boats he bought last year. He bought a house south of here along the Sebastian River for $55,000 cash. He sold it for about the same. got in a little over his head.
I asked him about his inventions and whether any of them went anywhere.
“I’ve had people that were millionaires try to back me, friends,” he said. “I’m elusive and difficult. Fame and fortune is something I’ve never accepted, even though I’ve come close to success. … I’m difficult. I have personality glitches.”
Such self-awareness seems the definition of sanity.
But enough about Mark for now.
It’s now after 9. I’ve been here all day. Becky and Max are on dueling computers opposite me. Gary keeps telling me stories. Say he’s going to tell me the one about the pelican and his diaper on the beach. I’ll get to Gary soon enough.
The McDonald’s culture is fascinating in its own depressing way. I’ve been here a couple times in the past 48 hours, and am growing weary of North Florida women yelling at their kids. But the river of money flows into these places like the Mississippi in the middle of a thousand-year flood. We stopped here this morning to use the Internet to get directions to the Y, and the line of cars queuing up for the drive-through window snaked around a corner and extended nearly into the adjacent street. The line at the counter was five and six deep. Money, money, money, baby.

***** 

Well, damn. I was in the middle of this post. Two guys sat to my right. One of them, Gary, was plugged into our power strip. There’s just a single available outlet here. There would be none if it wasn’t for the Redbox machine behind us.
The guy to Gary’s right looked for all the world like a homeless madman. Long white beard. Wild white hair.
I got talking to him, Don’t even remember how it came about.
His name’s Phil Bowler. He’s nearly 75. He’s the travelingest man I’ve met. And contrary to his appearance, he’s the most exacting and organized traveler I’ve met. He’s been to every continent. Been to 70 countries. He’s planning to fly to Warsaw this summer, visit the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova among a host of  eastern European countries.
Right now he’s traveling in his 1997 Honda Accord, He left his home in Vermont the day before Christmas. Says he won’t return until at least April 22. He’s put about 10,000 miles on his car on just this excursion. He doesn’t go anywhere without doing extensive, and I mean extensive, research.
Yes, this is how it goes. You hole up at the McDonald’s hoping to catch up on a little writing. Next thing you know you’re outside under a canopy in the middle of a Florida downpour talking to a fascinating dude like Phil Bowler. I recorded more than an hour of our chat. He told me about some of his travels. He told me about seeing Buddy Holly and Little Richard when he was a teenager.
For most of that hour I was shuddering. I’m still shuddering, though Becky and Max showed up with dry clothes. He spent the last 15 minutes of our conversation talking about sailing on container ships. He told me about TEUs, aka twenty-foot equivalent units. The units in which ship cargo is measured. He told me about the medical essays he wrote, one on cancer, one on hypertension and one on Alzheimer’s. They are all in my Yahoo inbox now.
I am not good at breaking off an interview. Perhaps that makes me a better interviewer, I don’t know. I said goodbye to Phil, and he drove off. I came inside shuddering and proceeded to interview Gary. He’s a good guy, too. He’s 54, partly from Daytona Beach and partly from Joliet, Ill. He rode his bike here from downtown St. Augustine. We’re going to give him a ride home.
Gary recently endured a bad experience in Savannah, and asked that I not use his last name. I promised to comply. I think he’s still a little worried I might screw him. He’s living in the tool shed of a church right now. I asked if he had a bed. He said he’s got a sleeping bag.
I promised to give him a ride home. It’s 9:43 now. I guess he’s in no hurry. Who’d be in a hurry to get back to a tool shed?
Gary told me about his Uncle Herb, his mom’s brother. Uncle Herb told him they are related to Sir Francis Drake. Gary said he takes that with a grain of salt.
That would be one-arm Uncle Herb. Uncle Herb lived in the Ozarks where his mom grew up. His mom’s name was Ica (pronounced Ice-a). Uncle Herb lost his arm in sawmill when he was 18.
One-armed Uncle Herb did OK for himself. He had a general store, a farm and ran the local post office. Retired with a federal pension.
So there, I am, A few hours’ further behind, but immeasurably richer in material.
And so it goes.

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