by Tim Gilmore, 10/22/2019
1. Caveat Emptor
Let the reader beware. The following story does not follow traditional plot lines and narrative arcs. Its unfolding just doesn’t let that happen. Its topic is truckstop hotels alongside the interstate. It showcases the Voice of the People, vox populi, even when The People are strung out on heroin, and features cameos of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Kurt Vonnegut. Its mention of Jacksonville’s transgender murder rate is particularly unpalatable. Its best feature: it begins with a dog.
The mutt shambles up and licks my leg. I’d say he smiled. Never met him before. He’s the only one here who’s paid me any attention and that’s alright. Quite. I intended incognito. Where he came from, I’m not sure; he’s not sure where I’m from. Nor are we sure of ourselves.
Lots of jokes about the name of the road, Dix Ellis Trail, given the particular kinds of illicit behaviors enacted here day and night. Sometimes “Ellis” falls off altogether. Sometimes an action verb or gerund comes before “Dix.”
This curving lane near Interstate 95’s intersection with J. Turner Butler Boulevard holds all the necessary ingredients for a stolid and tranquil suburb; likewise, all that’s needed for prostitution, drug deals and shootings: low population density, a lovely canopy of trees, no eyes on the street, hiding places folded into hiding places.
The street name commemorates Jacksonville Beach developer R.C. Dix and the realty firm Williams and Ellis. They worked together most memorably to build Pablo Keys and Isle of Palms, neighborhoods of keys and canals on the Intracoastal Waterway.
2. Trans Am
I’m here to listen to the conversation. To take it in. To bear witness. To eavesdrop upon the music of the discourse of the people. A truckstop seemed the best place to do it. I didn’t expect it to concern the recent murders.
“Only thing I can think better than bacon is more bacon.”
“Only thing I give a good goddamn about is God and the Gospel of Jesus.”
They say truckstops have cleaned up their acts. They’ve gone corporate, enfranchised. They’ve pulled a Times Square and gone from squalid to safe, become “family friendly.”
So I didn’t drive out to a TravelCenter of America or Flying J. I’ve come to what’s become the new impromptu truckstop of old: the inexpensive suburban hotel beside the interstate. I count 13 semi trucks cooling their heels. I B-my-OB to the picnic table by the pool.
“Now what I done heard, iss’a cyril killer.”
“You know when cops say killin’s ain’t connected, they coverin’ somethin’ up.”
I’m at the Quality Inn and Suites where Cathalina Christina James was murdered, June 24, 2018, when bullets began killing black transwomen across the city. Around the corner, someone shot Celine Walker dead in her Extended Stay America hotel room on February 4th. Somebody shot Antash’a English dead between West Ninth and West Eighth on the Midwestside on the first of June, and in September 2019, Demetrick Jones, whom friends called ’Lil Mama, was beaten and bound outside Majestic Palace Apartments, then dragged naked behind a pickup truck down West 36th.
Dix Ellis Trail is a place of displacement. Lives that don’t fit elsewhere wash up here. Sometimes in these rows and rows of interchangeable rooms, they end.
3. Delores and Alaska that Florida Winter
Delores has been clean since May 12, 2017. Still, Dix Ellis Trail blazed itself through her mind and that scorched landscape burns yet in her brain.
“I used to cut through the parking lot on the other side of 95 behind the Ramada Inn to get to the Extended Stay. I lived there, in that Extended Stay, from the late summer of 2016 to May 2017. I left on my ‘clean ’n sober date.’ I used to tell myself when I walked to and from the bus stop on the corner by the Hardees that my life was not going to end in such disappointment, that one day things would change.”
Things did. After detox and rehab. Upon the framework of a higher education. Life proceeds, individual by individual, down countless tracks, none of which can anyone truly know or judge. Now Delores works in banking, looks out over the river from the highest stories downtown. It’s those Southside suburbs that retain her shame.
“That Quality Inn,” she says. “That’s where we used to buy dope. I know that place well. It saddens me, the murderous violence there. I don’t remember the names of the people I came across and got high with. These prostitutes, they once were a mother’s child, a father’s daughter. They still are.”
Most specifically, she remembers a girl who called herself Alaska, though ironically that Florida winter proved too cold.
“She used to sleep in the abandoned moving truck on the same lot. I’m sure it’s long gone now. That February, we had a bad cold snap and I just could not accept the fact she was freezing outside and had holes in her clothes.”
So Delores invited Alaska into her Extended Stay room, where “that first night, she slept for about 16 hours. Of course, she was a junkie, just like we were, so the exchange for staying inside was that she had connections for dope and could get quality product quickly.”
Like many semi-residents of Dix Ellis Trail, Alaska stuck around for a few days, “then would disappear for a week, only to return again.”
Even when Delores was using, she had a desire to fix broken people. “Apparently just not myself,” she laughs. “Fix” becomes an off-pun. “In the end, Alaska stole my phone, my cosmetics, my clothes. Ironically, she was one of only two people who could hit me on the second or third try. I guess that’s why I didn’t care about my material goods being stolen. It’s dog-eat-dog, living in that world. I feel physically ill thinking about those times.”
Delores can feel the cloud moving in, ominous, the remembering, it darkens her eyes in front of me. She feels a void move into her vision, a desolation. Sometimes, if you look at the city just right, if you look at these suburbs built as cures to the city, you can see the desperation waft over the population like golden clouds of Florida pollen hovering through the brutal spring.
4. Cuts Both Ways
This lovely animal’s become my instant friend. His coat shines, a subtle sheen; his teeth are clean. He wears no tag, but somebody takes care of him. I ask him what he’s seen, but he just smiles and pants.
The American people might be as wise. “Take the Fifth,” they’re advised. Well, hell. The Supreme Court ruled in Berghuis v. Thompkins (2010) that defendants may not remain silent when told they have the right to remain silent. Miranda rights notwithstanding, defendants must speak up to assert their right not to incriminate themselves.
“You seen that one? It’s a joke about Jim and he’s got a college degree and Joe cuts off Jim’s electricity.”
“Naw,” says the second man in the camouflage ball cap.
The first man pulls up the meme on his phone and reads it. “Jim had a bachelor degree in philosophy and 100 kay in student debt, but Joe did a four year paid apprenticeship and didn’t have no debt. Jim can’t find a philosopher job, but Joe earns 80 kay a year. Jim thinks people without college degrees is stupid so Joe disconnected Jim’s electricity for non-payment.”
I ask the dog what he thinks. He pants on my knee. I don’t mind. I’m not here to respond. I don’t have to defend my dissertation again. Nobody can take my Ph.D. Education’s a value in its own right. I’m here to hear. And maybe count the chips on shoulders.
I can smell Kurt’s breath. Whatever others call him, whatever names he answers to, I’ve named him for Kurt Vonnegut. I mean it lovingly and Kurt intuits it.
I can’t help but scratch his scurf and massage the wrinkles in the back of his neck. He looks right into my eyes. He knows me in that way dogs do. I’m pretty sure he’s part pit bull. Maybe lab. Can’t tell if his toes are webbed. He’s something leaner and lighter and light-blue-gray—blue heeler?
I have the working-class snobbery toward people born into money who know nothing about what it’s like to struggle, and I have the snobbery of working-class people who went to college toward working-class people who resent people who went to college. It cuts both ways.
5. Stumbling through the Marketplace of Ideas
So it’s back out again on Dix Ellis. Quality Inn. Days Inn. Knights Inn. The road is bland and sterile and safe. Also safe now is the urban core, since the ghetto exported itself to the suburbs. Yesteryear’s downtown crime takes refuge in suburban hotels that double as truckstops. Whole Sin Cities make the corridors of these bland rambling buildings home.
I set my spirits back down on the plastic table and return my attention to what must be Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas.” It sounds like this:
“Now what they ought to do is string ’em all up and shoot ’em.”
“Now I think we get K into all chicken sandwiches like fluoride in tapwater. Ha. I’m talking, I’m talking Ketamine is to fluoride like chicken to a nice hot bath. Am I right?”
Once, old homes in inner-city neighborhoods were carved into multiple cheap rooms as boarding houses. Motor hotels, motels, built for working-class day trips in the 1930s and ’40s, bolted to seed in the ’60s and ’70s and nose-dived when Jacksonville became Cracksonville in the 1980s. Once respectable cheap hotels became “residential hotels,” with connotations of heroin and crack cocaine and prostitution. In the suburbs built to escape the problems of cities, corporations built “extended stay” hotels, and it didn’t take long for the opioid epidemic that began in the 1990s and churned full-froth through the 2000s to set up permanent residence in suburban “extended stay.”
So here we are. Me and Kurt. He laughs, I think, but laughs with me, not at me. He gets me. He’s a dog after all. And couldn’t a dog quote Walt Whitman, from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not, I too lived.
I ask Kurt if he knew Old Walt.
“Your mother said you were sensitive,” he says.
It’s true. She told me it was a strength.
“Your father scorned your sensitivity,” he says.
Kurt needs to stop interrupting. I tell him so. “Let’s go listen in,” I say. So we tune back in to what Supreme Court Justice Holmes called the “free trade in ideas,” arguing that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” It sounds like this:
6. Par Exemple
“Drink an entire keg by hisself?”
“These days, everybody’s cryin’ about bullies. We had more bullies, everybody wouldn’t be crybabies.”
“I was young and dumb and full of cum, alright?”
“I was drivin’ Pennsylvania. Harrisburg is fuckin’ dead, man, total depopulation. Most of that circuit’s post-apocalypse, but instead of zombies, you get meth heads.”
“Used to, I’d go on overnight runs with my dad just for fun, ’cept one time we stop to fuel and use the bathroom and this lady went from truck to truck knockin’ on all the doors and then the next one. I thought she was dancin’. She was kind’a swayin’ like. ‘Lot lizard.’ I ask my daddy cain’t we help her and he locked me inside the truck and turned off all the lights.”
“Damn dog had a patch over one eye and the other one was glass.”
7. Ecosystem Kicks
When state departments of transportation build multi-lane highways, tie them up in bows of looping offramps and interchanges, they alter forever the ecosystems of cities. The areas off interstate interchanges operate like port cities 100 or 300 or 2,000 years ago. Every vice jumps ship, incognito, makes its deals, and departs for some interchangeable interstate exchange in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas. Whole economies of drugs and sex slaves exit, offload, engage, tit for tat, then get back on the road.
These hotels full of hookers tuck into corporate office parks, buildings just cubes of windows in lakes of asphalt, each with a just-add-water unaccredited “college” or “university” headquartered within.
won’t you get hip
Here’s a man urinating under an umbrella. Here’s an Enzo Torcoletti sculpture, something like a broken pylon as ancient ruin, stranded in a fake lake, remnant of the Ancient Now.
to this timely tip
The Florida sun blinds us at noon. The moon makes us feel alright at 12:46 a.m about tomorrow.
when you make your trip
It’s not alright. We’ll feel like hell. But we’ll be even.
when you get your kicks
Kurt will be fine. He’s left my side. I couldn’t question, in that moment, whether the man he knew deserved his loyalty. Probably not.
out here on Dix
Whatever his real name, for a moment, Kurt let me know him. I loved him.
And he let me know. He let me know he knew me. I jotted some high-quality eavesdroppings down. Next time, I’ll leave my easily wounded ego at home. I blew my cipher, but not my cover.
Get your kicks on Dix Ellis Trail.
Get your kicks