New Shoes Scott Carrier
Hitchhiking with a telegram for the Dalai Llama.
by Scott Carrier, 6/7/2002
HOST: Sometimes we can get through the strangest of circumstances with nothing except "dumb luck." This is a story like that. Nearly 16 years ago, contributor Scott Carrier spent time in India working as a sound engineer on a radio documentary series. He returned to the States, to New York, with $100 in his pocket, but still had to get back to his home in Salt Lake City. He had no idea what kind of adventure he was about to involved in doing this -- after buying a pair of new shoes.
Scott Carrier: This is a long story about nothing in the end, except dumb luck. Sometimes, luck comes in a deserving fashion to the righteous, sometimes it comes without justice to the wicked, and still other times, it simply falls upon the dumb, like manna from heaven. This is what happened.
I'd been in India working as a sound engineer on a radio documentary series. By day, we interviewed some of the poorest people in the world. By night, we slept in the most expensive hotels in town. At the time, almost 16 years ago, this made me feel guilty and somehow responsible for the plight of the downtrodden masses; but now, it wouldn't bother me -- in fact, I might insist upon it, as I've learned that a good night's sleep is essential to a good day's work. And dropping a lot of money at an expensive hotel probably does more for the poor than spending only a few bucks at a dive.
The producer had the annoying habit of always asking whomever we interviewed if they could sing. We'd be talking to, say, some women whose husbands had drank themselves to death at an early age on wood alcohol, and after the husbands were gone the wives would be left in the house of their father-in-law, who, sooner or later, would decide to pour gasoline on the woman and light her on fire -- and they'd have burns all over their bodies, and be living on the streets. They'd tell us their stories and then the producer would say, "Yes, that's very sad, but can you sing a song for us?" And they'd sing, nearly every time. I hated that, but now I understand the tactic: if there's one thing that cuts through the problem of awkward translations on the radio, it's a song sung by a woman who was nearly burned alive.
There were other disappointments; one involving a trip almost 1,000 miles to interview the Dalai Lama, only to find out he wasn't home. But most troubling of all, were the financial problems. When all was said and done, I ended up at JFK in New York with a four-inch high stack of rupees, worth about 30 cents on the dollar. All told, it came to around $100, and I still needed to get home to Salt Lake City.
First, I went to Macy's on Broadway and bought a new pair of shoes for $60 -- white basketball shoes, high-tops, really good ones. I felt good about this because I wanted more than anything to get out of the shoes I'd worn in India, not because they hurt my feet or because they were worn out, but because I was back in the United States, where big, fat men laughed as they made my pizza and taunted me when I couldn't decide what to put on it. I wanted to have shoes like that, not shoes that had walked through the land of empty stomachs. I rolled up my pants past my shins and walked out on Broadway feeling good every time my soles hit the street.
Then I spent another $5 on a bus ticket across the river to New Jersey, where I walked a short distance to Interstate 80. I had only $35 in my pocket, but that didn't seem like a problem then. I could hitchhike a thousand miles a day. I could hitchhike faster than I could drive myself -- now, I dislike hitchhiking.
I quickly got a ride. The car was a Dodge Dart, maybe a 1974 model, with a shiny new coat of gold paint. Inside were two young men, maybe 20 years old, both with long hair and bomber jackets -- they were what we used to call "hoods," low-level criminals, gruff in their speech and simple in their motivation, summed up by the phrase, "Party on, dude!" They were on their way to work in a shoe factory, and were preparing for their shift by drinking beer and smoking a joint. I told them that I'd just bought a new pair of shoes, and lifted one leg from the back seat to show them, explaining that I'd just gotten back from India, and how they should be careful about wanting to ever go there. But they were really completely uninterested in this. The driver said, "Have a beer, dude, and mellow out. Here, you get high?" passing me the joint.
I'm pretty sure that joint was laced with PCP because one hit and I became extremely nervous, my hands shaking, my whole body convulsing in tremors. This I could handle, but then they stuck in an 8-track of Metallica. I'd never heard Metallica, they were kind of new back then, and to me it sounded like a terrible monster that eats strip malls, teeth grinding concrete overpasses. Godzilla music. Truly frightening. So I took out my tape recorder and preserved it for posterity.
SOUND: Metallica in the car
We were tooling along at 80 miles an hour on a 55-mile-an-hour freeway, eager, I guess, to get to work at the shoe factory, when the driver suddenly yelled
Driver: "Wow, dude, hide the beers. Hide the beers!"
The music stopped.
I didn't turn around -- I didn't need to turn around. I tried to hide the empty bottles under my hat but there were too many of them so I pushed them up under the front seat. The patrolman was young, just a kid, also about 20 years old. He politely asked for the registration and the driver said he didn't have one. So the cop asked for his driver's license and went back to his car. Then he came back and asked the driver to spell his last name as it was written on the license. The driver spelled it, and the cop said, "That's close, but it's not correct. Everybody step out of the car."
Searching the car, the cop found the bottles and lined them up along the back seat. Then he found the roach and set it right in the middle of the front seat. Then he told us to get back inside and not touch anything. He went back to his cruiser and called in support, while we sat there next to the evidence like a living museum exhibit of the drug culture.
Another patrolman arrived, and we were taken out of the car one at a time and questioned. I told the officers the truth, that I was hitchhiking and had just met these fellows, my voice stuttering and tight, high pitched, uncontrollable.
One of them asked me what I did for a living and I told him that I was a radio producer and that I'd just been in India, and was on my way home. He asked if I had any professional identification and I told him I was an independent producer -- which meant that I was pretty much self-employed -- but then I remembered that I did have something to prove my story. It was a telegram that had been sent to me in India by a producer at National Public Radio, whom I'll call Mr. X. I'd asked him to send it as a letter of introduction, just in case I happened to run into the Dalai Lama. The telegram was only a couple of weeks old, but the thing looked like it had been through a war. The words were printed on a thin strip of paper, like a ticker tape, and then cut every seven inches and pasted on another piece of paper, one line below the other. It read as follows:
"To whom it may concern, Mr. Scott Carrier is a freelance journalist working for our organization as a radio reporter. Please accord him access to documents, interviews, musical events, public speeches and ceremonies, entertainments and religious festivals as he may wish to attend with full knowledge that he is a working journalist on assignment." Signed, 'Your obedient servant, Mr. X.'"
I told the cops that it was a telegram for the Dalai Lama, and they asked me who that was, and I said the Dalai Lama is the 10th reincarnation of Avalokishvara, the Tibetan God of Compassion, and they looked at me like I might be pulling their legs. Really, I said, he's like one of the most important people in the whole world.
They read the thing and turned the page over and tried to pull the strips off the page to see if it was real. But who would make up a thing like that? They told us to get back in the car and they went and sat in their car and talked about it for 20 minutes. And then the first cop came up to the window with a speeding ticket for 72 miles an hour and told us to be on our way. He let us go.
We drove down the highway very carefully and then pulled off at the exit to the shoe factory. I got out and said, "So long," and they never once said thanks, or, "Hey, dude, bitchin' telegram." I'm still a little upset about that because even thick-necked hoods should give credit where credit is due -- but they didn't.
So there I was, at dusk in early December, standing at an off ramp in New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, surrounded by a thick forest. I was still shaking, but I was in America, "Land of the free and home of the brave."
HOST: Scott Carrier made it back to Salt Lake, and he still lives there. He’s both a producer and a writer, and author of the book "Running with Antelope."