I first considered that the world might have a gender in the second grade on the pre-dawn bus to school in Hot Springs, Arkansas. My bus route was rural, and the main road we traveled on was Ridgeway. Ridgeway is a curvy road; over a single two-mile stretch, the twenty or thirty little hills seem to have been planned, so regularly do they occur, so uniform in height do they appear to be. I was an excitable, dreamy kid, and the only one on my street whose parents wouldn’t drive him to school when it was our street’s turn for “first bus”—a designation that meant, in essence, that you stood in Harry Columbus’ driveway in cold darkness, tonguing pop-tart out of your teeth, waiting to be taken to school two hours before the first bell rang.
So I was alone—with the bus-driver, Mr. Davis, who was also my P.E. instructor, short and dark and bearded like a G.I. Joe with thick glasses—free to indulge my thoughts and concerns as we rolled up-and-down, up-and-down on Ridgeway in a fairly obscene manner. The large size of the bus heightened Ridgeway’s roller-coaster-like sensation, and no one ever accused Mr. Davis of taking it slow. In my dawning heterosexual imagination, we climbed and crested a woman’s thighs and breasts, a dark-purplish woman whose face was obscure, who enjoyed the tickle and weight of our bus along her twisting body. I tried to explain this to my friend Tommy Hollis once on the bus ride home from school, but it was too bright outside, too noisy for him to understand.
It’s often too bright outside, too noisy for people to understand what the hell I’m talking about, but let me try to tell you about Rhoda. In the late summer of 1995 she came to me as a gift: one of Mam-Maw’s church friends was named Rhoda, and in 1978 her husband bought himself a new, milk-chocolate-brown Chevy Impala before keeling over in one of the usual ways. Rhoda drove that Impala to the Glenwood First Baptist Church on Sundays and Wednesdays, to the Piggly Wiggly, to the beauty parlor and post office; in sixteen years she put twenty thousand miles on the odometer. When she got too old to drive, she put it up for sale for twelve hundred dollars.
The Impala had brown leather bench seats, and a busted radio. Pap-Paw had been a car salesman at Friendly Ford, and later at Wisener Chevy, so he knew what to look for in a used car—the condition of the engine, how well it had been maintained. He looked the car over, decided it was a good investment. From the passenger seat in Rhoda’s carport, Mam-Maw was already campaigning for Pap-Paw to give it to me. She seemed to sense the car would mean something, do something.
Since I’d limped out of Yale that spring—a straight-D student, heart-broken over a break-up with a ballet dancer, carless, depressed that the record labels courting me hadn’t made any offers—I had been doing time at U.S. Pizza, which I could walk to. I did little else that summer but sling dough, write songs, and surrender weekend mornings to cheap wine at my friend Eric’s mother’s pool. Eric’s mom kept an amazing stash of porn under her bed, so I did some of that, too. It was beautiful in a pathetic way, but when that brown Impala rolled into my life I knew it was time to drive.
My mother dubbed the car Rhoda. In those days, I was given to a sort of arbitrary contrariness, reluctant to let prevailing opinion prevail upon me, but even I knew a good name when I heard it. A car called Rhoda would feminize every inch of road that touched its tires. Road-a.
I accepted Mam-Maw’s generous gift and promptly skipped town.
I had a friend in Berkeley who had recently started playing with Green Day. Earlier that summer, he’d invited me to come out to California and start a band with him. With no car, and no desire to share front-man duties with someone else, I hadn’t given it a second thought. But by the time Rhoda arrived, I could feel the fall chill approaching, could see the sunlight thinning around me, and I knew I had no choice. I threw my guitars in her back seat and headed west.
The Chevy Impala occupies a place somewhere between sports car and family sedan. The late seventies models—affordable, well-made, ubiquitous—are the cars most people think of as “F.B.I. cars,” or yellow cabs. Rhoda’s was a modest stylishness, a subtle swagger, the fine girl at the dance you miss if you scan the crowd too quickly. I’ve always enjoyed tasteful camouflage, and hunting when I got to choose what’s hunted, so Rhoda and I got along well. Mam-Maw worried about Rhoda’s not having a working radio—non-musicians assume that musicians listen to music constantly—but I knew I’d be better off writing my own songs along the way.
It’s a twenty-nine-hour journey from Little Rock to Berkeley and almost two-thousand miles. I wrote three songs in a state of meditation similar to what I’ve heard California types describe as their experiences on retreats, when they’ve taken a vow of silence and eaten grain and donned loose linen and spent seven-thousand bucks. I wore a thrift-store button-down, boot-leg jeans, and too-small second-hand snake-skin boots. I was fatter than I realized. I stretched my right arm out along the back of the front-seat bench and talked to myself. The brown of the hood of the car, the brown of the seats and the steering wheel, the brown of the desert and the grass of the landscape, the way the overwhelming sunlight turned this vast brown field to yellow in the edges of the windshield, my wincing recollection of storming into a friend’s house two nights before because I saw my ballet dancer’s car out front, converged:
I run, I rest, I ride I
hurt, I heal, I hide
From your memory
But word gets back to me.
If one has seen your car
Another knows where you are.
You’re young and you are free
And word gets back to me.
Alone and broke and weird for such long stretches of time, I traced my trains of thought to something like their origins. I saw a billboard for hair plugs in Texas that read, “Some guys have all the luck.” Hours later, driving through the shadows of New Mexican mesas, I howled the lyrics to “Maggie Mae.” A Rod Stewart-shaped synapse in my brain had been firing for hundreds of miles, without my being conscious of it. The trip was a white man’s vision quest.
I was driving away from and toward my ballet dancer; she had moved to San Francisco after our break-up. Her name was Leslie, and she was hard to look at. It was ridiculous, the length of her legs, the smallness of her waist, the hugeness of her breasts, the doe-like blueness of her eyes, the wide expanse of her mouth and her big, white teeth when she threw her head back to laugh. She was crazy, insecure, and depressed like no other woman I’ve known.
We met in high school, on my first day at Little Rock Central. I had never had anyone fall in love with me at first-sight like Leslie did that day in Mrs. Holliday’s Drama class. I didn’t realize I was so susceptible to that event’s compliment, so vain that I would fall in love with the event when I couldn’t fall in love with the woman.
I had transferred to Little Rock Central in the middle of the school year after my mother and step-father collaborated on punching me in the “kids’ den” of our house, after I’d spray-painted sarcastic signs and hung them on my previous high school’s walls. (The football team was notoriously bad, and I’d been threatened with suspension if I didn’t participate in sign-making. “Multiple Choice:” my sign had read, “A, Good; B, Lucky.” My perverse signs got me called down to the office of Principal Tarkington, a short man who enjoyed temper tantrums.
“People around here have long memories,” he told me while I imagined I was somewhere else. I’d never been anywhere else but Arkansas, so I imagined I was in a Smiths song.
He wanted to know why I’d quit playing basketball, why I’d started to dress “weird” (Joy Division T-shirts I ordered though the mail), why I’d been hanging around the only interesting people in that Christian fundamentalist kindergarten of a high school. He had to ask each question twice, so intent was I on transporting myself elsewhere in my mind.
He called my step-father, who called my mother, and everyone concluded I was on dope. When I denied it, my step-father knelt down on his knees in front of me and squinted his eyes shut and prayed, “Oh, Lord, not for our glory, no, but for Yours, help Jason to admit his sin,” and I rolled my eyes, my mother came down on me with the backs of her diamond ring-studded hands.
And in that moment, something cold and instinctive inside made me turn my cheeks from right to left after each of her back-handed slaps, so wild was I to mock their Christian hypocrisy.
That’s what sent me to Little Rock Central, to my dad’s house, and to Leslie. The closest thing I’d ever seen to joyous love was Mam-Maw’s and Pap-Paw’s, but that was a very narrow kind of love, emblematized by Pap-Paw reclined in La-Z-Boy, watching college football as Mam-Maw cooked and cleaned around him. I didn’t know what getting along looked like. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that two people were supposed to get along, if they felt intensely for each other. So I was miserable with Leslie and she was almost certainly miserable with me. We didn’t know better—in Arkansas, at Yale and beyond, but I was comfortable with misery. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I felt Rhoda guiding me back into my old misery all the way out west, so it’s no surprise that for many reasons, Berkeley didn’t work out. I got a job at a video store, Jason and I made a half-assed stab at being a band, and we had some laughs. Rhoda got to see the Bay, got to wear snow chains in Oregon on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, got to protest those snow chains by refusing to heat Jason and me for the duration of the tour. She got to comfort and transport a passed-out punk rock star in her back seat. Despite my Berkeley friends’ frequent guarantees of expensive traffic tickets, Rhoda and I had spent a year in the Bay Area without ever relinquishing her Arkansas license plate. It was time to roll on. Sony was ready to sign me. Rhoda and I set out for New York.
A car can be a hassle in New York, especially if you can’t afford to keep yours in one of those big, covered parking garages that charge by the month. When Rhoda and I pulled up to my friend Geoff’s brownstone in Fort Greene, I got to memorizing a complicated series of often-contradicting and overlapping windows of time in which I could to park her on the particular side of a particular street.
Geoff was a Texas musician who lived in a big apartment on the fourth floor, with a window in the living room that looked out on the street bordering the park that used to be one of General Washington’s forts in the Revolutionary War. That living room became my bedroom. Fort Greene is far rougher than Berkeley, where I had enjoyed imagining that my Arkansas plate inspired snobbish assumptions from unconsciously racist, white, middle-class liberals. In Brooklyn, I sensed that my license plate provoked something different, though related. A labyrinthine housing project spread out for blocks a quarter-mile behind Geoff’s building. He told me to buy one of those red steering-wheel locks that car-thieves used to spray with hair spray and shatter quickly with a hammer, and that’s what I did. Slow them down, was the idea. I hoped the Subaru Outbacks and Honda Civics that the other white folks shuffled around the park were more attractive targets than my sly chameleon Rhoda.
I got a job in mid-town Manhattan doing “technical support” for a company called Interpage who made it so you could get faxes on your pager. I took the subway to work in the morning and moved Rhoda like a mistress around Fort Greene at night. For a brief moment, I seemed to have money to spend on music and drinks and drugs and Yankees games. Clinton was in office and the economy was booming. My friends and I used to meet at the Top of the World Bar in the World Trade Center to drink martinis and hand off cocaine for bathroom straw-snorts. I introduced them to Rhoda; we took her on weekend trips to friends’ parents’ houses in the Hamptons. Brit-pop and Beck had made acoustic anthems fashionable, and I played Manhattan clubs, opening for my favorite bands. I released CDs, put songs on movie soundtracks, missed Rhoda from a limousine at Sundance, riding awkwardly with Carl Lewis and Jon Spencer. I took her on east coast tours; she seemed invincible; she’d never been ticketed, never been scratched. She was as pure as the driven night.
No one ever thinks anything will go on forever, because no one knows what forever means, but some people get accustomed to action for a while—to graceful movement—and it makes idleness hard to bear.
When I lived with Geoff, heroin and volunteering at soup kitchens were his priorities, in that order. I never knew what I might encounter when I walked into the apartment. Geoff hosted the homeless in our apartment, many of whom enjoyed sampling my wardrobe as they drank my booze and strummed my guitar, alone, while Geoff went on a dope run. They were mostly sociable hustlers, black men driven to addictions and neuroses by hard luck and racism, but I never felt comfortable around them; they smirked and laughed at me bitterly; none of them seemed to feel any gratitude for the place to land. I got why men who’d grown up on the streets of Brooklyn might not feel the need to thank a couple of Southern white boys reverse-carpet-bagging their turf, but that didn’t make hosting them any more pleasant. I could always point Rhoda across a bridge in a random direction to escape.
One evening, mirthlessly passing a wooden pot-pipe back to a shirtless, middle-aged man in baggy red pants named Dick, I felt my Interpage-issued pager vibrate in the pocket of my tapered Dickies pants. It was from my A & R representative at Sony.
“Just got fired, will call you later.”
I should’ve known then that the good times were over for a while.
The next day, I came home to a hole. It was a Tuesday, the day of the week I could park Rhoda right under my window, on the park. Monday night I parked her there, fastened her steering wheel lock, compulsively glanced at her Arkansas plates before climbing the stairs to our apartment. She was there on Tuesday morning when I walked past her into the park, a short-cut to the subway station, where I caught a train to Manhattan to meet a painter who’d finished my next CD cover. But on Tuesday evening, I found nothing but an orange parking cone and a chunk of dug-up sidewalk. I paced the block in a panic, ran up to my apartment, called the cops. A lazy female voice gave me the address of the local police station, told me to come in and file a report. I walked there in a sweaty haze, embarrassed by how shattered I felt.
The police station sat across the street from the teeming housing projects and had the feel of a barely contained riot. It was full of men and women screaming and gesticulating at each other, pushing each another out of line, without fear of reprisal, but I was too much in shock to really notice. When I finally made it to the front of the line, I shouted the reason I was there at the crown of the head of a cop who seemed too exhausted to look up at me. Eventually, she did lift her head and raise her baggy eyes, and she expressed her disapproval of my complaint with a pinched frown, the way a big-city emergency room nurse looks at a man who’s walked in with a hangnail on Saturday night.
Armed with a copy of what the woman called my police report, I tried to slow my pace as I walked back to my apartment in the dusk. I called Geoff at the soup kitchen; he was sad to hear that a badass ride was gone. I took a shower and wrote a song before I could dry off, recorded it on my boom box:
Why does pain fade?
Where does it go?
It’s less permanent
Than Southern snow
Why do I weep but once a year?
Bring your sorrow over here.
I mixed a stiff drink at the Tiki wet-bar Geoff had found on the sidewalk one night on a nearby block and dragged up the stairs to our apartment. I couldn’t resist sitting at the window, staring at the hole where Rhoda should be. I picked up the phone to call Mam-Maw.
Geoff screeched his prospector’s laugh at me when he came home and found me that way. He was high, but I knew I looked ridiculous. I was in a crisis of guilt, imagining Mam-Maw’s reaction, the woman-Rhoda’s, my mother’s, imagining car-Rhoda smashed to pieces or dissembled for her parts or painted yellow and pressed into service as a taxi, imagining my vinyl copy of George Jones Sings the Songs of Leon Payne in her stolen trunk. I felt guilty for my life, for not doing what I was taught to do by those who raised me. But when my mother told me that car’s name was Rhoda, she Ridgeway’d the whole world, had made Eisenhower’s storied interstate system a maze of female limbs. I’d had no choice but to go all the way with Rhoda. Where was she now? What good was I without her?
Within a few months, traffic tickets began arriving to my mother’s house in Arkansas. The first one was dated the day after Rhoda was stolen—the thieves had parked her in a city bus zone in Manhattan and declined to pay the ticket. I called the number on the back, and the woman at the courthouse didn’t believe my story.
“We’ll impound your car if you don’t pay,” she threatened.
“Please do!” I shouted desperately as she hung up.
Though years have passed, though I’ve sent copies of my police report to authorities in New York, my mother still gets letters threatening to impound Rhoda and garnish my wages for not paying my now-enormous fine. I suspect a couple cops towed Rhoda and sold her for parts, split the money, erased my file. Still, every time I’m in New York I watch the taxis for a while and wonder if it’s her, whole and yellow, strange asses sliding around her back seat—or if she’s dispersed and fetishized, her transmission-heart shifting through the rhythms of someone else’s life.