Trick. Fool. Bamboozle. Clowns are they who vie for attention in this

tragicomic vein. On the face of it, so to speak, it seems funny to

wear too much makeup while trying to pedal a ridiculously undersized

velocipede toward some stupidly ambiguous destination. Or is it sad?

Is that the trick? Who’s the trickster? Who the tricked? What makes

their momentary congress a trick? Its difficulty? Its ability to

injure, surprise, intimidate? Was anybody hurt? Is anybody laughing?

Say you sauntered down College Walk in downtown Honolulu all by your

lonesome some early evening just after dark. Would you expect to be

confronted? Accosted? Escorted? Ensnared? Accommodated? Treated

kindly? Or with indifference? Or malice? To receive pleasure — or pain

— or to give it? All very tricky. But why “trick”? Is it always tricky

regardless of motive or outcome? Or might it trick us into thinking

it’s something else, not a trick at all?

Was that term even used that way when I was growing up? I’m not sure,

but why not? In any case, it seemed pretty obvious even to a

seven-year-old that most people in my neighborhood hadn’t really

planned to be there at that time of their lives and were sort of

bewildered by finding themselves there. Even us. My family seemed

determined to do the best we could with what we had — what we’d been

tricked into — , but how that would turn out was anybody’s guess. The

shipyard was everybody’s primary employer. World War II was past.

Would there be a World War III? Whitey hated working in the shipyard,

but the retirement plan was good. Could he keep going until

retirement? Could we? Would we? All a bit tricky.

The neighborhood was sort of an oversized campground with shabby

little doll houses in place of tents, a sort of pre-trailer-park trial

run on a larger scale. There were a few fenced-in yards with

flower-bordered lawns, but overall the yards were semi-grassy

overlaps, more worn-down than mown. There was no city sidewalk, only a

kind of berm separating the street from our yard.

Like a public campground, everybody knew everybody else’s business.

Kids were especially out and about, but adults weren’t far behind. The

husband of the childless couple in the white house to our left

suffered from wartime battle fatigue and would sometimes wake up

screaming in the middle of the night. His wife sewed secret pockets

inside his work clothes so he could more easily steal tools and other

useful items from the shipyard.

The couple in the alleyway behind us could not have children because

the wife had been such an avid horsewoman in her youth that her

insides got knocked around and out of order. Sometimes Whitey and the

husband would share a pint of Old Crow across the backyard fence.

In the quonset hut behind them lived a large, lively, and

exceptionally handsome family. Their once-beautiful mother, her face

horribly disfigured, melted, by fire. You could still see how

beautiful she must have been, and everybody felt sorry for her and

easily forgave her occasional top-of-the-lung harangues against the

whole fucking universe. High-pitched keening, they were banshee loud,

unexpectedly inventive, and exhaustingly long-lasting. Afterward she’d

throw a party in the alleyway, just her and her kids. They’d drive

into town and come back holding helium balloons with long strings,

cake, ice cream, phonograph music. Eventually, high-spirited laughter.

Across the alley from them lived an extended family of dust bowl

refugees, stringy-limbed Okies who mostly kept to themselves. One time

they threw a birthday party and neighborhood kids were welcome inside

their small neat-as-a-pin house containing not a stick of furniture.

Friendly, smiling adults sat on the floor against the wall watching

two lank-haired children ride new tricycles back and forth across

well-worn linoleum in the middle of the living room.

Next to them lived a family with two daughters, one of them my

classmate. Their fenced-in house was especially nice and featured a

basement garage, off of which her father had constructed a private den

where he engaged in worldwide short-wave radio conversations and read

pornographic novels.

Directly across the street in a little gouged-out gravel pit of a yard

bordered by encroaching Scotch broom sat a small, square, off-gray

house with its sun-bleached rollup windowshades perpetually drawn. A

car or two might be parked carelessly near the house. That’s when

Linda was sent outside.

Linda was three or four years old and spent a large part of her time

sitting on an old tricycle moored for the day near the line of Scotch

broom. Dough-faced and overdressed, she was always well provided with

a striped paper bag of hard candy, which she solemnly consumed two or

three pieces at a time. Neighborhood boys joked about eating candy

from Linda’s drool bag. Snot crusted her upper lip. Her teeth were

short black stumps. I never heard her say a word.

Her mother would come out periodically to check on her, usually

sporting a fresh cigarette and a vaguely disheveled brown wraparound

robe. Sometimes you could hear music, loud laughter, and the clinking

of glasses and bottles from inside. When there was a live ship in

port, Linda consumed a lot of candy sitting on her trike. You sort of

wonder how that all turned out. Tricky.

“Linda”, a popular song from that era, had a lovesick guy counting all

the charms about Linda to put himself to sleep, instead of counting

sheep. Charms? And how far were we supposed to imagine that? What,

exactly, were Linda’s charms? Tricksters everywhere you look. Tykes

turning tricks on trikes? Fake news of the day: Tricycling trickster

tykes tout tremendously titillating Trump triumphs. Too much.

We moved away from that neighborhood before long and into a rural

setting that afforded a lot more privacy, much less social diversity.

Twenty years later, “home” from Hawaii, I found myself seeking

diversity behind the wheel of a seventeen-year-old car I’d owned for

five years and hadn’t driven regularly for two. It would be an

open-road cross-country adventure of personal discovery. Or something.

Leaving Hood Canal, I headed south across the Columbia then due west

from Portland to Astoria and the fabled Oregon Coast. Stopping at a

Safeway outside of Astoria to buy beer, I fell in love with the young

checkout woman and her smooth-skinned hands and arms. “You wanna go

out on the beach and build a fire and drink beer?” I wanted to ask but

did not.

Things get craggy pretty soon along there, and I found myself pulling

over beside a barber pole at one of those cliffside business areas and

telling the barber to shave my head clean. He had to ask twice if he’d

heard me right. All of it? Was I sure? “To the bone,” I laughed. This

was back when people were finally getting used to thinking long hair

on men was normal. Was I sure I wanted to buck that trend? Sure I was

sure. Sort of.

This lightbulb head I’d kept hidden until now was going to take some

getting used to. Also, the Nikolai Lenin facial hair I planned to grow

would be weeks in the future. The new me was a project of some

duration. One kind of tricky part that I hadn’t really considered:

What about the old me? What if I decided I wanted that instead? Was it

retrievable? How often do we home in on a destination only to find out

when we arrive that we really didn’t know what we were getting into?

In my experience? Just about every time.

A few more miles down the road, for example, I maneuvered out onto

acres of flat-packed sand next to a roaring Pacific Ocean.

Picture-perfect, I snugged against an old-growth cedar log, made a

fire, drank beer, played guitar. Suddenly I became aware that the

roaring was much louder and I’d have to make a run for it through a

deepening sheet of incoming salt water that floated my floor mats but

did not kill the engine, still struggling for its very life on three

or four cylinders when I turned south on 101 without stopping.

Still struggling in second gear at about fifteen mph, I felt another

cylinder kick in and at about twenty-three mph another one started

helping out. At about thirty mph I put it in high but lost speed and

returned to second for more slow miles. Then the sixth cylinder

finally kicked in with a series of backfires that smoothed out to what

seemed almost normal.

Normal she was not, as I was to discover when I checked her oil and

found it heavily clouded with salt water. I was carrying a full case

of SHELL X-100 20 motor oil, so out with the old and in with the new.

Right? But no. Somehow I never got around to it, just kept driving

down the coast, camping out, picking up hitchhikers, playing “Oh

Susanna” on my blues harp.

Picked up some kids, but they didn’t have any weed. Picked up a reedy

blonde and her German shepherd, but they declined to spend the night.

Picked up a Vietnam vet, on the road for two years, who eased out the

door at a stoplight without thanks or goodbye. Also picked up a

full-torso exposure to poison oak climbing shirtless down a Big Sur


Instead of looking for a place to change oil, I started seeing this as

a test of my standing with God and the Universe. If I could make the

whole trip without changing oil, I was in like Flynn. If not . . .

I was getting used to the new me, the shiny pate, the wormlike vein

over my left ear, the black chin stubble. Not a Lenin double yet, but

surely a developing resemblance.

The Southwest deserts did not exact their toll on the contaminated

oil. At Grand Canyon I added a quart, which took me through Carlsbad

and West Texas, where I helped a grateful family, stuck up to their

Ford’s hubs in soft desert sand, back onto the highway.

In Bryan, Texas, I spent several days with friends I’d made in Hawaii.

“It’s a 1951 Chevrolet. I bought it in 1963 for $350. It’s got a 1952

Power Glide engine that needs its oil changed.” They suggested a local

service station, but I let it sit while I drank beer and shot pool. We

had to jump-start it when I left, still without an oil change.

I was headed for Boston via Texarkana, etc. when I started feeling the

itch. It can take a week for the rash to develop. So, right on

schedule. Calamine lotion, next stop. But wait. There was something

else going on. The engine? No. Well, maybe. Kind of a . . . not a

grinding exactly. I’d monitor it.

It became a grinding, exactly, and then a metallic clinking and I was

somewhere off in some Ohio countryside where I pulled into a

worse-for-wear farmhouse driveway at the back of which sat a big, open

equipment shed. Next to me sat a blond four- or five-year-old kid on a

tricycle. “Anyone home?” I smiled friendly, but he just stared.

The back porch was the main entrance, so I rapped on the back door and

waited. Somebody was walking around inside, but nobody said anything.

I rapped again, said, “Hello. Anybody home?” and waited. More moving

around, doors closing, water running. Finally, footsteps, high-heeled

footsteps coming toward me and stopping to open the door. Obviously

she wasn’t expecting ratty-looking me. She was expecting the date

she’d got herself dolled-up for. Incredulous is the only word for the

look she wore when I asked if I could, uh, park my car in her, uh,

garage. “Hay-all no you cain’t,” she said with a haughty toss of her

curls. “Hay-all NO!” The door slammed, the sound of heels receded.

The kid hadn’t moved his trike as he watched me get into my Chevy and

start her up. His expression was blank, but he hated me with every

fiber of his being, as the saying goes. I could feel it. The clinking

sound was getting louder. My chest and back itched like crazy. Rain

started pelting my windshield one dusty pock at a time, then all at


The windshield wipers still worked well enough so I could feel my way

to the next town, where I sold my car to a guy at a gas station for

$25, mailed my guitar and Coleman stove back to Hood Canal, got on the

highway heading east, and stuck out my thumb. Next stop, Philadelphia,

PA. Then Boston. Or bust. This was getting to be very tricky indeed.

Talk story

Leave one comment for TRICKSTERS AND TRICYCLES

This website uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to its use of cookies.