Kosher Nostra



Columbus, NE/Interstate 80

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Climbing the steps of the Chelsea townhouse, I hoped the guy who opened the door would be a stud. I found him on Craigslist, in the rideshare section. He was headed to L.A. via Omaha, where I was getting off.

Nine days had passed since I answered his cross-country-in-a-cargo-van ad. In that time he assured me I was going, then disappeared, then turned up in the Poconos saying the van was blocked by a crane, then he said the van was freed but didn’t pass the emissions test, then it did pass, and now we were ready.

This guy seemed a little crazy but less so than most listings on Craigslist, like the dude who announced his pet rat Squeegee would be one of the passengers.

The guy described himself as a 35-year-old professional GWM who preferred to make this trip – something he’d always dreamed about – with another gay man. Well, I was a homo who needed to get out of New York ASAP. I had just returned from a two-month stint in Afghanistan where I was an embedded photojournalist. Before being mortared in Kandajar and almost killed by insurgents between Kabul and Bagram, I had given up my apartment in Brooklyn and now I was homeless. Also I had to clear out a storage unit that I could no longer afford.

Not only did I want to get back to Nebraska to sort out my career, I had to attend the 40 th birthday of my favorite cousin Susan who used to stay at my family’s house every summer. As a kid I always did things to her, like put polish sausage in her sleeping bag. And she always returned the favor, like suspending said polish sausage from my bedroom doorjamb with a message pinned to it that read: “Die motherfucker!” To miss Susan’s party would be sacrilege.

My rideshare was Robbie Argento. I commented his name, which means “silver” in Italian, sounded like a porno handle. He replied he *was* a porno star. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but just in case, as I rang the doorbell I steeled myself for a hot strapping blond jock to answer the door. “This could be the trip of a lifetime!” I thought, as my heart raced with excitement. Maybe we’d exchange blowjobs all the way to Nebraska. If the trip took a few weeks who cared? If I missed my favorite cousin Susan’s 40 th birthday party, so what? I’d make her 50th.

My expectant smile drooped like a flaccid penis when a pale, pudgy guy wearing an oversized Mets sweatshirt opened the door. So much for the porno trip to my little house on the prairie.

My expression dropped even further when I beheld the jalopy for this road trip. There was a crack in the windshield from one end to the other. One direct hit with a large bug on the interstate could send the entire windshield crashing into the cabin. The bald tires bulged under the weight of the empty van. Would they even roll when fully loaded? And every part of the van that wasn’t covered in silver paint was rotting with rust. How was this heap going to make it to New York, let alone all the way to Nebraska? It must’ve taken a fistful of green to pay off the inspector to pass this wreck.

To complete the surreal picture, on the side of the van were two glaringly large words: “Columbus Hardware.” My hometown in Nebraska is Columbus. So I would be driving halfway across the country in a hardware van named after my destination.

After getting registration stickers at the DMV, Robbie handed me the keys and told me to get my stuff while he packed. Although my heart was jackhammering against my sternum I grabbed the keys.

I’d failed to mention that since moving to New York in ’93 I’d completely lost my feel for driving. Like people who fear heights and think they’ll involuntarily jump off a tall building, I always worry I’m going to spontaneously crash. But ill-marked lanes, aggressive cabbies, and unpredictable bikers be damned! I had to reach Omaha.

Maneuvering the rusting colossus to retrieve my bags from my ex’s place then over the Queesnborough Bridge to storage was like trying to dodge bullets on a shooting range while wearing a blue burqa … backwards.

When I returned five hours later, trembling, Robbie’s dark eyes glared at my dufflebags, milkcrates of books and eight steamer trunks. His initial ad offer of “half the van available” had shrunk to a few cubit feet. But since he lied about how easy this trip would be, I lied about how much stuff I had.

Although I’d hoped we’d be off by noon, the October sun was already falling towards the Hudson when Robbie opened his storage unit. It was like looking into a Taliban hideout cave that had just been shelled by coalition forces and was now filled with debris. A towering heap of wall-to-wall junk lay before me.

“Um, how much of this stuff do you wanna put in the van?” I asked.

“All of it,” he replied, pulling out unmarked boxes. Any questions about Robbie’s sanity were now answered.

The priority was a gi-normous memory-foam mattress that was lodged in his unit tighter than an earthworm inside a clod of dirt. By the time we extracted and carted the unruly beast to the loading dock, then wrestled it to the van’s floor, I was ready to jump on top of it, fall asleep and conclude this had all been a nightmare.

The van looked full after we stuffed in a round marble tabletop, its black curly-cue metal base and six rattan chairs, all apparently stolen from a Motel 6 in Tijuana. But Robbie proceeded to cram in cart after cart of mangled suitcases and overloaded boxes. The only thing that stopped him was when the back doors of the van wouldn’t shut. He propped his feet against the loading dock and used his back to force them closed.

Before padlocking the storage unit, which was still over half full, he grabbed a russet-colored whicker basket. “I need this for my cat!” he exclaimed.

As we inched our way through Friday rush-hour traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel I held my breath and prayed the tires didn’t blow up in the middle, creating a crisis that’d end up on the front page of the next day’s New York Times.

When the silver turd was excreted from the tunnel, the sky was black and there was a river of red taillights in front of us. We crept 40 miles then Robbie said he was hungry. He brought his laptop into the packed diner. His eyebrows furrowed as he chewed his cheeseburger.

“I recently lost my publicist job and I gotta download a document for worker’s comp,” he explained. “But my wireless isn’t working.” I didn’t ask for details but wondered why he hadn’t done this earlier. I persuaded him to download it in the morning. He reluctantly closed his laptop, like pushing back the spring of a mousetrap.

In the next three hours we crawled 130 miles through traffic-choked Pennsylvania. At this rate we’d be in Omaha by Christmas. To calm my nerves I turned on the radio, but the one naked speaker lying on the dirty red dashboard sounded like someone was singing in a tin can. Also the reception was bad. I turned the radio back off.

Just as traffic was thinning, Robbie made an announcement: “I think we need gas.”

“How low’s the tank?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, it keeps changing.”

I examined the gas gauge. The needle was in the red as we chugged uphill. But when gliding downhill, it seemed we had a quarter tank. We took an exit but the gas stations were closed. Back on the interstate the road flattened. The orange needle was licking the red zone.

“Drive slower,” I said, having myself almost run out of gas one time by Denver. He thought it was better to drive faster.

After the fumes propelled us to a gas pump, Robbie put the van in park, stared at the fractured windshield and spluttered, “Mama’s nerves are fried.”

It was 1 AM when I took the wheel. To stay awake when the thrum of the engine and rhythmic white median lines lulled me to sleep, I grabbed a thermos of high-octane espresso. As Robbie slept I rocketed through each state. The van was stuffed with everything except an atlas so it was always a surprise to find out what state came next: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa.

I usually stayed in the fast lane since the wind kept moving the mirror on Robbie’s door. I could only turn right when he was awake to tell me the coast was clear.

I pushed that rusty silver bullet to the limit. I didn’t stop for anything except gas. When out of the darkness a large animal scurried into the road I kept going. Maybe it was a fox. Maybe a possum. I couldn’t be sure, because I only saw it a second before I heard a thud as 3000 pounds of Columbus Hardware van barreled over it.

When the low oil light came on, I checked the dipstick at the next stop then dumped in a quart of oil. As I slammed down the hood, bits of rust sprinkled down on top the bumper. The red light stayed on. Two worst-case scenarios came to mind. If there wasn’t enough oil in the engine it could overheat and detonate. If there was too much oil in the crankcase it could crack the engine and render it useless. I motored on.

When Robbie wasn’t slumped over sideways, almost touching the floor, and snoring I’d ask him about his family.

“My father was Italian, my mother Jewish, so we used to call our family the Kosher Nostra,” Robbie said, grinning. “We were raised Catholic though. I even went to a seminary school when I was 13.”

“Really? Did you ever have sex there?” I asked.

“It’s the first bath house I ever went to,” he declared. That made me laugh. I mentioned I didn’t have sex until 21.

“Not me!” he said, puffing on his cigarette. “I used to sleep over at the houses of my little league teammates. We’d play around and suck each other’s dicks underneath the sheets.”

Robbie explained that his mother was addicted to nicotine and casinos. His dad died of a heart attack on a casino floor looking for her. Robbie’s mom never allowed him to talk at the table or to see her without make-up. “My grandparents would doll my mom up with powder and lipstick when she was a girl then stuff a Lucky Strike in her mouth and bring her along to the casino instead of hiring a babysitter,” he recounted.

Robbie’s brother Tommy is an incorrigible thief. “He used to steal communion wafers and took money from the collection plate at church,” Robbie explained. “If we went to a restaurant he’d go back to the table after we left and pocket the tip. My mom hid her purse every night before going to bed.” Another brother was in a wheelchair and dealt drugs unnoticed from the back of the family house for 10 years. And his sister had two kids and twice as many abortions.

Every time we got gas Robbie wanted to find a wireless connection to download his document and every time I convinced him to do it at the next stop. He wanted to pause at every border to have his picture taken in front of the state sign. I always had a reason why we couldn’t do it. He’d quietly light a Marlboro and gaze out the window as I zoomed past another state line. His only consolation was buying lottery tickets in every state at gas stations for his sister and her new baby.

When a downpour began in Iowa and the speed of traffic quickened because Midwest cops don’t stop speeders in the rain, I kept the pedal to the metal. I had to tilt my head because the windshield wipers dragged dangling pieces of rubber up and down.

Robbie started smoking quicker and deeper. “Ken, are you sure you’re going the speed limit? These tires aren’t the best.”

“I *am* driving the speed limit,” I assured him. I just didn’t tell him I was driving the speed limit of the German autobahn.

In Des Moines, I for the last time pumped up the tires to 60 pounds per square inch, which looked right to me. I saw a mechanic and asked what the psi should be. “45,” he said. Oh well. They hadn’t popped yet so I pulled back onto I-80.

The van farted into Omaha 25 hours and 1254 miles after leaving Manhattan. My brother Greg blinked at the Columbus Hardware logo then helped me pry open the side doors to pull out my crap. “You two look like escaped convicts,” he whispered to me. I showered then we headed to Harrods Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa for my cousin’s birthday bash. Turned out Robbie got a free room since he’s a regular customer.

Robbie invited me to stay in his room since he had “an extra bed.” I feared he might try something like he did with his little league cohorts so I said I’d think about it. I eventually lost Robbie as I partied with my relatives. Nebraska hillbillies with beer buckets were too much for a kosher nostra New Yorker.

At 3 AM, my eyes two red burning orbs, my head spinning after 44 hours of being awake, I called Robbie’s room, twice. No answer. Outside the casino I hailed an overpriced taxi back to Omaha. I tried to reach Robbie several times the next day. No reply. For a week I sent emails and left a dozen voicemails.

I never heard from him again. I wondered if he was sore because his dream to travel cross-country didn’t turn out as he’d envisioned. I never slowed down so he could take pictures. I had more stuff than he’d planned. And I didn’t even find him a riding companion for the second half of his journey like I’d promised. During the entire ride he never insisted on doing what he wanted. Now I felt guilty.

I wondered if he even made it to L.A.. Maybe one of those over-inflated tires burst in the middle of the freeway and he careened into an oil tanker, exploding into a 10-story fireball. Or maybe the engine shelled out and he was stuck in Reno. I had no idea.

Mentally I wished Robbie the very best and hoped his new life on the West Coast would bring him peaceful happiness and would be better than the mess he lead in New York.

Incidentally, I wished the same for myself.

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