Sitting on a bench in downtown Portland, Oregon, a man asked for a cigarette. When I handed him one, he lowered himself beside me.
He wore jean shorts and a yellowing white sleeveless t-shirt. “Yeah,” he said once I lit his smoke, “I just spent all my money on groceries.” His squeaky voice echoed between the narrow street’s tall buildings. He leaned back, green eyes staring forward, not registering the bikers or the buses that crossed our path, simply staring through the city, acknowledging nothing. This was my first day in town.
I’d driven up alone from Tucson, Arizona to spend most of a month sleeping in my truck and hiking new parts of the Pacific Northwest. Friends and family had asked, “Why don’t you fly?” I told them that the trip was half the point. Driving provided surprises, adventure and room for improvisation, and it revealed the America between destinations. Moving point A to B, flying skipped all the good parts.
“Yeah,” the man beside me said, “I got lots of good groceries, man. Check this out.” He reached into one of the two full plastic bags he’d set on the pavement. A white Styrofoam tray lashed with taut cellophane encased a gory cut of beef. Blood sloshed around, collecting in the corner against the clear plastic. “Some really nice steaks. Mmmmm, yeah. I always get the good stuff.” He held it out for me to see without looking up. “I like my meat real tender, you know, so I buy good meat from a good butcher and get a nice cut.” I looked passed him at the small convenience store from which he’d emerged. Lotto ticket signs and beer adverts crowded the entrance, creating a kaleidoscope of clashing colors, fonts and logos. It sat beside the entrance to a dive bar. “See, the hind cuts are kinda tough,” he said, “the center ones are tender, so I get those and cook ’em up real nice. They’re juicy and flavorful, man. And—”
I quit listening. He was staring straight ahead again, now rubbing his hands over the cellophane as if it were a crystal ball. A smile creased his pale face. His doughy body shifted tirelessly in the seat, scooting up and down and up again against the wooden slats, as if battling an interminable itch.
A group of bike messengers stood on the opposite curb, smoking and drinking coffee. Tattooed calves showed through their cut-offs, some had bleached haircuts black at the roots. Periodically they held walkie talkies to their ears. There were a lot more messengers back then, that or they just stood out before the average kid started aping their style.
The messengers rolled their own cigarettes, swished coffee in their cups. “Yeah,” the man said, “I got these cuts for really cheap, and they’re real good. I like ’em on the skillet spiced up with garlic.”
Part of me needed to perpetually inject some sort of excitement into my increasingly mundane life back home, which was why I was on this roadtrip. Even at twenty-two life already was: eat, sleep, go to school, watch TV, week after week. I could see the writing on the wall: two more years of college and it was off to the work force. A nine-to-five job. A cubicle. Where florescent bulbs fill the asbestos sky. Then what, marriage? Mortgages? Kids? Then cancer treatments, bladder control issues, erectile dysfunction? At age twenty-one I thought I knew everything. Man, was I wrong.
To change the subject, I asked the man what he was going to do today. He wasn’t interested. He sucked the last drag from the smoldering filter and dumped his meat in the bag.
Aaron Gilbreath is a West Coast essayist and journalist. He's written for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, The Believer, Vice, Kenyon Review, The Morning News and Narratively, and wrote the musical appendix to The Oxford Companion to Sweets. He tweets @AaronGilbreath