My exodus from Chicago was bittersweet. I was in love with a new city, and wasn’t ready to leave. I picked up my bags from the hotel after relaxing at the Cultural Center, and walked slowly up West Adams Street to Union Station. My train was waiting for me, and I boarded it like a commuter on a subway. My companion on the trip to New Orleans was a man named Lee. He was a big, portly black man with a sunny disposition and a mild twang in his voice. He told me he was on his way to a funeral somewhere near Jackson, Mississippi. It’s an odd thing; we dress so well to celebrate the passing of loved ones. Our “Sunday Finest” has purpose on the grassy knolls of buried siblings. He was pensive, despite his friendly nature. He listened with quiet, observant eyes and ears to the folks around us, telling their stories and commenting on life. He did a cross-country ride like mine before, when he was younger. Now, he told me, he was doing it out of necessity. He won’t fly in airplanes anymore. He remembers the sacrifices of long-distance travel, but keeps a good mind about it. He was raised in Amish country. He fought in Vietnam – saw some terrible things on those recon boats and helicopters – and came back in one piece, to live his life one day at a time from then on.
Lee had little else to come back to after that war, except for the lucrative jobs that were labor intensive. He went where the wind took him. He worked on a fishing boat for a few days, catching fish, shrimp, whatever the oceans provided, but along the way his experiences at war came back to haunt him. He quickly washed his hands of a life at sea, and became a man of the earth. He worked on a wheat fields in rural America for a while, earning a living with crops, and adjusting to a simpler life. One day, he found a car for sale. It wasn’t for sale; it was free, as long as he could fix the engine. He spent his free time fixing that engine and got it working within weeks. It was an old car with no top, red, and he took it across the country, picking up some of the beatnik generation along the way. I smiled and thought of that conversation I had with Epstein on our way to the Washington Monument. For all I knew, Lee was the one who drove those great minds across the country.