North of LA - the Grapevine, a horrifying but also fun! section of Highway 101 that starts your journey through the future post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland between LA and the Bay Area. It takes me six hours every weekend to drive this route – and six hours back again - in an ill conceived money losing commute from my job in Orange County to my home in Alameda in the Bay Area. The job pays $15/hour. The gas needed for the drive is around $200. Times are tough and things are stupid. I lose one day driving, giving me one day to see my family. Proof you can get used to any ridiculous thing.
My weight sits at an abysmally high 275 lbs, the most I have ever weighed in my life – due to the Prednisone. I’m sweating profusely, my head and hair drenched so that I must wear a bandana across my brow to even be able to see the road – because of the Prednisone. I have to be very careful about the color of any bandana I wear, the wrong colored bandana could easily kill me – because of the gangs.
Since normal frequency modulated waves cannot, or will not penetrate the bland nothingness of despair and radiation in this 300 mile tract, I must rely on Sirius Satellite Radio to accompany me. Sirius (the Dog Star) came free with the car, the previous owner having never cancelled his subscription. This is a case of something being better than nothing. Without Sirius there is only the howl of shrieking ghosts and rumbling of probably misaligned wheels on the asphalt. There is no easy hooking of an ipod to this car and I’ve misplaced the damn thing anyway. But I’m not a huge fan of Sirius. Out of hundreds of possible stations none really grab me. I click around. I need music to make this drive, but you get what you pay for I guess. Normally I’ve got the rig tuned to the dum “Underground Garage” where I like the talking better than the tunes. Little Steven has some great, erudite interstitial monologues about rock and pop culture history that are worth waiting through his obsession with doo-wop and other old, crappy shit. There are also two DJs who I like just for their voices: Andrew Loog Oldham, who is so fucking British you could butter your toast with his accent, and the thoroughly awful “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, who like Oldham is an acquired taste, but once you accept him, like Jesus, you will be entertained.
When I get to Oakland a first order of business is to fill a prescription for Prednisone, a cortical steroid and the pharmaceutical establishment’s gift to all humankind. Its great for when they know something’s wrong with you, but do not know exactly what. It is the WD40 of drugs and they give it freely to anybody who walks in their door. When you get to the Kaiser’s pharmacy there are usually several techs in white coats and white hats scooping mounds of Prednisone into large paper cones, bottles and ziplocks, and handing them off to grateful supplicants. Prednisone is supposed to work great on polymyocitis, so they hand me a 7-11 Slurpee cup filled to the brim with clattering little tablets. ‘Cept it turns out I don’t actually have polymyocitis.
I would find out much later that I a version of Poly, known as, “Inclusion Body Myocitis,” much less catchy and harder to say and interesting for its complete indifference and lack of response to Prednisone, which by now I am addicted to in unsafe dosages.
One Sirius station is called “Classic Vinyl” and as soon as I hit the button they are spinning “Karn Evil #9” by my old, dear friends, Emerson Lake and Palmer - clicks, pops, scratches in all. Are they literally playing a record, I wondered, or were these sounds digitally mixed in for effect? I wouldn’t put it past them. This sends me on a pleasant teenage nostalgia trip, laying or lying on my teenage bed in Pittsburgh, poring over Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery’salbum staring at HR Giger’s gatefold art trying to figure out what the hell it all meant. Classic Vinyl, I could stay here forever, be safe here. I heard ELO and BTO and all great “O’s” of the ‘70s, and nearly cried my way to the Coalinga turnoff when the acrid smell of cows and fertilizer seeped in through the gaskets and the music suddenly turned to Bob Segar and the Eagles. I mopped my head with a turquoise bandana and saw brownish residue from the stench. I jacked the AC and hit “scan” as I tore ass out of Coalinga.
My body was a damp, gelatinous mass. Unfortunately, Prednisone is not the kind of steroid that pumps you up. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’d be a massive Jose Conseco skulking through Orange County. But instead I’m a medusa jellyfish washed up on Newport Beach. My Creatine Phosphokinase enzyme level (CPK) from my besieged liver sits at an insane 2700 u/l’s, where in healthy folks would maybe hit 200 at the very most. The Prednisone has brought this number down over the months to about 1800 or so, so on paper I’m doing great.
I see the word “Lithium” pop up on the Sirius display. Ha! Music for depressives! That should work. But no, Lithium, it turns out is some kind of reference to “Light Metal” as the metal lithium is chemically the lightest of all metals, and its “salts” can alter brain chemistry! Rad and deep referencing by the lads at Sirius. But light metal? Some kind of horrible hybrid I wasn’t aware of? Nu Metal? Elevator Metal? I lingered there to find out. Strangely it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. Or maybe the radiation was getting to me? I heard Tool, and Rage Against the Machine, Garbage, and a dozen other bands I would have switched off the instant I heard their name mentioned. But now that I was on lithium I gave them a chance. So I left it tuned to Lithum, tucked my gut into my seatbelt, swabbed my brow and rocked my way North. Dude.
How do you lose a biopsy? I wondered and asked the Kaiser as soon as I was granted an audience. The Kaiser could give a shit. “Happens, asshole, grow up, get another one, sheesh do I have to do everything around here? But first I have to get you off the fucking Prednisone. Who gave you this much Prednisone for fuck’s sake?” said the Kaiser.
To know what strain of Poly you might have (there are 3 of them) a biopsy is in order. I had one, but the Kaiser botched it and lost it in that order. Biopsies aren’t a walk in the park either like you can just pop in and get one and be on your way. It’s a minor surgery and you (or I) have to be put under to have it done. But not the kind of “under” as in a heart transplant kind of thing, more of a light knockout where you may wake up for a sec and see robed and masked individuals floating around you holding knives and hoses and laughing hysterically, probably at your enormous 275 lb gut hanging out. Later you may have a weird flashback to this scene and remember it clearly as an alien abduction. So another biopsy? By now I had enough of the Kaiser and his zany band of surgical merrymakers, and decided to take my Poly where they take this shit seriously: you guessed it, Pittsburgh, PA.
One last trip down to Orange County to quit my job and ditch the car would be in order before a trip to the ‘burgh, and by now Sirius was on to me and stopped all transmissions until somebody paid their goddamn bill! I raged and tore at the car.
I tried to play it cool. It takes a while to lose all signals from the Bay Area so I milked the FMs as far as they would take me, well into the Country Western bandwidths where I did my best to be open minded but the cold shakes and fuzzy visions were coming fast as Prednisone addiction and withdrawal happened simultaneously. The country twang of the radio was making me angry. Really fucking mad and hungry and short tempered and sweaty. I was a fool to think I could do this alone, without music. I would never make it. I listened to static, half stations, howling wind. Sometimes you just got to let the noise into your head, if you know what I mean. Let it saturate and marinate and jumble your wires. Turn it up and drive the thoughts of Poly and Prednisone from your head and enjoy the landscape speeding by, the blur. Hear your own thoughts for a change! So what if you see a weird tumbleweed blowing cross the road? You’re almost at the Grapevine, time has passed so quickly, only about 2 hours till the OC. You hardly have time to notice the sudden LA-based smog-storm that has silently crept up over the mountain, and has covered the road and all cars with swirling yellow dirt. I jam on the brakes.
Visibility is zero and I have to draft behind wildly swerving trucks. Dust seeps into the car and is on everything, including my drenched face and arms. I look in the mirror and see I am turning yellow. I’m afraid it will harden into a radioactive shell. I trundle down the Grapevine trying to wipe my brow and cursing LA. Spinning tumbleweeds start barreling toward me. Great, giant ones of all colors that can not be avoided! I brace for impact but they only bounce harmlessly off the car when they hit. My heart rate is a mess – because of the Prednisone - or lack thereof.
The radio comes crackling on at the Tejon Ranch – Mexican (whoa ho!) and I’m so happy I blow past the dozen or so available gas stations there and run out of gas at the Magic Mountain. I literally coast into the desolate Amoco station that sits David Lynch-like at the base of the ‘Vine. The dust storm and tumbleweeds are also lingering here. There’s a guy on a scooter also covered in yellow silt who is attempting to fill dozens of red containers with gas, splashing it everywhere. The man in the booth does not care, nor has an opinion about the storm or the tumbleweeds. I do catch my reflection in his glass and I look crazier than the scooter guy.
The next day I pack my remaining Prednisone in a couple of carry-on bags and leave for the John Wayne International Airport where I’ll be abandoning my car in their lot and catching a plane to Pittsburgh. Before I do I give Sirius Satellite Radio a call and renew the car’s subscription for another year. Might as well leave a fighting chance for the next unlucky guy. Or a small shred of hope in whatever storm.