Sept. 10, South Burlington, Vt. – Out in the back streets and cul de sacs of America, the wayward traveler occasionally is overcome by a mysterious shaping of events and characters which I like to call road magic.
It doesn’t happen often. You can’t bid it to come. If you anticipate its arrival, you’ll be disappointed.
It always startles you when it materializes, and it always leaves you higher than a double shot of Cuervo Gold. It swells your faith in humanity and, for a time at least, repels the encroaching forces of darkness.
I’ve come to interpret these unexpected and delightful interludes of bonhomie as a byproduct of plugging away and, contrary to my nature, pushing myself on people.
It is, in short, a reward. It’s come upon me in Vienna, Ala., and Tallapoosa, Ga., and Cody, Neb., among other places.
Today, it found me wandering U.S. Highway 2 in South Burlington, Vermont.
Last night I was in the McDonald’s on Shelburne Road till 3 a.m. swatting away flies and recording stories in workmanlike prose. I intended to tackle my laundry first thing. After getting a cup of coffee and a bagel at the Shelburne Road Price Chopper, I checked my directions and set out for the Wash Spot.
The road magic often strikes after one has succeeded in getting profoundly lost. For the most part I am an empiricist, but I sometimes I think I’ve been guided by an unseen hand. Having missed the Wash Spot altogether, I found myself in the middle of the University of Vermont. When I stopped at a red light, I looked up to see professorial-looking gentleman in wire-frame glasses and silver goatee came from the other direction on a bicycle. It would be cool, I thought, to get into a conversation with a professor.
But I kept looking for the Wash Spot. I had dirty laundry, after all. I drove off campus, thinking I would emerge somewhere close to where I’d gone in. Somewhere recognizable. I didn’t.
I ended up on Highway 2, which here is called Williston Road. It was awash in the consumer attractions peculiar to our stripmall culture.
That’s when I saw him. A middle-aged man clad in the traditional regalia of personal outrageousness sauntered along the sidewalk to my left. He held a guitar and appeared to sing a song.
He looked like a reggae Rasputin in his frayed jeans, wild beard and knotty dreadlocks. Whoever this madman was, he waltzed along Suburban Street in Everyday, U.S.A., wielding a banged-up six string and following his bliss with insouciant gusto.
Yes, I had laundry to do, but, Jesus, I should try to meet this character. I made a U-turn, circled past him and parked up the street at the Price Chopper. I went inside and used the restroom, figuring I’d be able to find him when I came out the other side.
When I came out, I focused my eyes and gazed about. At first I thought I’d lost him. When I finally spotted him, he had augmented his look. He now held the guitar in his right hand and balanced a 15-pack of 25-ounce cans of Bud Ice on his left shoulder.
I stalked him as he swayed from side to side. His steps were slow and painstaking but unrelenting. I was filled with a sense of respect, if not admiration. It requires considerable effort and discipline to carry 375 ounces of beer over any distance. I had no idea how far he was going, but I knew he’d gone farther than I’d ever want to go with such an unwieldy load.
I broke into my usual routine of hemming and hawing and hoping, but there wasn’t time to waste. His burden was heavy, and by necessity his progress was slow. I’d be climbing up his back in a second. Either I had to make a move or give up and go the other way. I took a deep breath, then moved alongside him and said hello.
A big, goofy grin spread across his face. He greeted me with warmth and ease, like he’d been wondering when I was going to show.
He said his name was Tom, and he’d lived around here most of his life. If it weren’t already, it became apparent he is dealing with a serious mental illness.
We made small talk. He handed me his guitar, urging me to give it a go. The B string was missing, and it was hopelessly out of tune. It hardly mattered, as nobody’s ever confused me for Django Reinhardt.
As we walked, the conversation grew more personal. Then he said his wife had died. I said damn, of course I was sorry. He said he’d buried her in the backyard. It wasn’t too long afterward that he explained that his “wife,” Jenny, was a German Shepherd.
He slowed to a stop near the intersection with Elsom Parkway. Our chat stalled. I sensed we were about to part ways.
I fumbled for something to say that might forestall our parting. Tom told me about Mia and Laska, two alive-and-well German Shepherds. I was happy to hear about them. He said I could meet them, if I was up for the long walk down his street. I said any distance you can cover with 25 pounds of beer on your back, I’ll handle without complaint.
As we neared his house, Tom said all sorts of confusing things about his parents and/or housemates. He said he’d disowned his parents. When I asked if this were a legal or spiritual act of disowning, he responded tersely: “I disowned them.”
I had no idea if the people he talked about were surrogate parents, loving friends or nefarious caretakers. As my front foot hit the cement walkway leading to the front door, he said something awful about them.
I wondered if meeting Laska and Mia was such a great idea after all.
No, Tom insisted, everything was cool. I wasn’t so sure. I crossed the threshold in anxiety’s grip and braced for confrontation. A petite woman emerged from a study, where she had been playing music.
She leveled me with a smile of surpassing sweetness. It stopped me in my tracks. As I tried to regain my equilibrium, she invited me to a seat on the couch. She asked if I would like coffee or tea, then asked Tom to make us all sandwiches.
It didn’t take long to realize that old road magic had me in its spell.
My hosts, in addition to Tom, were Natasha Koval-Paden and William Paden. They are in all ways Tom’s parents. And they are two of the humblest, sweetest and most likable people I’ve encountered during this interminable odyssey.
She’s a Soviet-born concert pianist. He’s a retired professor of religions. I asked about his studies. He’s written several important monographs and is now working on a new book. He hopes to synthesize his academic work into a lively book for a popular audience.
He mentioned the nettlesome problem of the other, how humans still tend to divide into us-vs.-them paradigms, and I asked why this tribal instinct remains so pervasive. Instead of chuckling and saying “tut, tut, the answer to that question is too complex to explain to an obvious lout like yourself,” he answered thoughtfully.
“I think it’s a survival program in the social part of the brain,” he said. “Anything that seems to – and I emphasize seems to – anything that is perceived as a threat can trigger very violent reactions.”
These reactions, emotional and spontaneous and potentially ugly, are “just crocodile-brain stuff,” he said.
“I’m finding that every kind of grass, every species of plant, every species of tree, not to mention the animal world, is defending itself in certain characteristic ways. I think humans are part of that spectrum of behavior. We’re part of nature, after all.
“Even radical killing and genocide, where it doesn’t seem to be in self-defense, seems to be related. You’re stamping out the genes of your neighbors, killing off things that are going to try to kill you some day. When you’re jockeying for common resources, that aspect of defense is so blind, such an ancient instinct, and it has the power to horrify our modern minds. We humans are somehow subject to these behaviors.”
That even discussion and debate over the nature of being tend to devolve into tribal acrimony leaves him distressed. People either believe in science or they believe in God. Where’s the nuance?
“There’s still that awe about the creation,” he said. “It’s all very awesome, existence. Even a scientist can be awed by all the miraculousness. Who can get their head around all that? Intellectually, I can be stunned that there is a world at all. Mystically, it’s a wondrous thing. I guess that’s why I went into religion.”
Well, I was so taken by his parents I worried Tom’s feelings might be hurt. I didn’t want that, but this was too much fun. I mean, these people treated me as if I were an equal.T
Their worldly accomplishments must be pulled out of them forcefully, as they are modest to a fault. She received training from a sister of Vladimir Horowitz. He was colleagues and pals with Joseph Campbell, the American giant of mythology and religion. She played piano for the dancer Jean Erdman, also Campbell’s wife.
She has played a series of benefit concerts in Honduras and sits on the faculty at Middlebury College.
Before long the visit took on the air of a family reunion. Natasha insisted upon seeing photos of Max and Becky, then showed me pictures of her five children. She said I must bring the family north to visit their new friends in Vermont.
And I promised I will. We had become, in an instant, friends for life.
Tom invited me into the basement to see more of his paintings. He also invited me to chug a shot of vodka. For the first time in memory, I declined. He was persistent, even insistent, but somehow I managed to return upstairs without rotgut liquor burning in my throat.
Natasha sent me away with two apples, a banana and several morsels of chocolate. She thanked me profusely for being human enough to talk with her son. It was embarrassing.
I try to explain it was not the Padens, but I who should be grateful. And I was.
We returned upstairs, and William drove Tom and me back to Price Chopper. He also gave me directions to the laundromat around the corner, concise and simple without a hint of academic jargon. I found got there without trouble, and went to bed at night between clean sheets.
To the Padens and their like, I offer a humble note of thanks for making this journey worthwhile and rewarding, no matter what becomes of all these words.