Take a ride into American Graffiti, Salt Lake City-style.
By Phil Jacobsen
AUGUST 4, 1997: State Street, Friday and Saturday night, and enough cars, trucks and motorcycles are dragging, racing and socializing to make Salt Lake City, for these two nights, appear to be Motor City, USA. Sorry, Detroit.
When Brigham Young designed the streets of Salt Lake City to be wide enough to turn around a team of horses, did he also envision streets wide enough for teens to turn around and prostitutes to turn tricks? Or was this simply a by-product from Brigham's brain, much like legions of children are by-products of his polygamist loins? Regardless of the forethought, the after effects of this fat-platter picnic spread has become a steady diet of automobiles and illicit deals.
State Street, on the weekends, is a traffic jam between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. It's like going to a drive-in without the movie. It's the proverbial "all dressed up and no place to go." A slow drive in the country minus the country, plus exhaust fumes. It's a traffic jam that is easily avoided but, instead, sought out.
To the throngs of teen-agers and the young 20-somethings (that make Generation X-ers look like over-achievers) it is "the place" in the city of "This is the Place."
I imagine the day Francis Ford Coppola made American Graffiti, he was trying to capture a time after Henry Ford turned the horse and carriage into the horseless carriage. A nostalgic vignette of an ancient ritualistic rite of passage from the '50s. Dragging Main. A time when it was cool to be a Jet, from your first cigarette, to your last dying day. A "Happy Days"-Fonzie thumbs up "Aaay" weekend romp to pick up women, show off your hot rod and your car.
The past. History. It's the present, too. It is 1997. And for a city as large as Salt Lake City, it seems less nostalgic, and somewhat pathetic, that for some there is nothing better to do on a weekend than deplete the ozone, create noise pollution with a quadraphonic BASS BASS BASS driven stereo while wearing out good Michelins doing brake stands at stop lights.
If I sound like a grumpy old man, I did turn 30 a week ago.
As the old saying goes; there are a million different stories in this naked city. Well, here are seven stories of those who let me peer into their lives, as they bared it all on State Street. This is the story of my weekend-gone-to-waste. At least it didn't go to pot.
It's Friday, shortly after midnight. I've just left a bar. It doesn't matter which bar, because any could have been to blame for a night in which I acted like a kamikaze pilot dive-bombing drinks and shooting shots quicker than Annie Oakley. To drive home at this point would be suicide, if not murder. My thoughts are sober enough to calculate these consequences. Tomorrow night the moon will be full. Tonight, I'm tanked.
My camera is in the car. I get it. I flick my cigarette butt and caution into the wind. Destination: State Street. I've never cruised, dragged or hung on State. In fact, I've surmised those who have wouldn't know how to occupy a single moment of their lives if they were left by themselves. Single souls who couldn't march through time, unless they were following the cadence of their friends.
State Street has always appeared to me as a convention for the socially inept. Hiding behind the wheels of automobiles and the roar of engines are single personalities unwilling to step out from their muscle cars. No Pain. No Gain. No Brain. Yelps, whoops and hollers, the sound of puppies being run over, emanate from these automobiles. This is how I have seen State Street. I've never been an insider. Always one of the brat-pack movie Outsiders stay golden, Pony Boy.
At this point, I can't remember the name of the single-malt Scotch I was downing earlier this evening. Or was that this morning?
I'm walking south on State Street with 300 South to my north, therefore, approaching 4th. From a yellow Honda Civic, I hear the shrill of a girl's voice yell, "Do you wanna see my breasts?" Before I have time to respond, or pull the lens cap of my camera, I feel like I am stumbling down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. I have no beads to give her, and yet, she delivers, as promised "the goods." I haven't been on State State for but a minute, and quicker than I can say, "Can I buy you a drink?" I almost got to second base.
Reeling from this double-D 220 volt jolt, and distrusting attitude still intact, though somewhat waning, I find myself talking to a group of State Street regulars. I tell them, like a quest for the Holy Grail, I have come in search of "Why?" Why do you hang out on State Street at nearly 1 o' clock in the morning? Why aren't you at home playing parlor games? And why, if you are drinking beer, haven't you offered me one?
My new best friends opened up the trunk of their car, which revealed the ice chest that stored the beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Busch and Keystone. Certainly not the hierarchy of alcohol, but free beer is good beer, even if it is cheap beer. I hopped into what could have been a white Ford Mustang, but then, it could have been an anything, or it could have been trouble. All I know, is I sat in the back on the hump as we thumped down State Street with Marilyn Manson riding shotgun.
"Tell me the answers to the questions I seek," I asked them all. Their ages ranged from 19 to 22. Their blood alcohol content was probably the same with a decimal shift to the left. Terrance, 19, drinking a PBR as his choice libation, and quite possibly my future probation contributing to the delinquency of a minor answered my question, saying that people cruise State Street because "they're all idiots."
"Then, what are the four of you doing?" I asked.
"We're here to make fun of all the idiots," said Mike, 21, Busch beer in hand. And a random voice, with a Keystone aroma, yelled, "And to get kitty cats."
Perhaps, slang was slung and they weren't referring to calicoes or Persians. The quest for "cats" was certainly a reoccurring theme on State Street.
"Check him out," Brock, 22, Busch beer, said "That's Han Solo." Fully expecting to see Harrison Ford, I snapped my neck and spilt my beer, PBR. Not seeing Han Solo, a Raider or even a lost ark, I needed further explanation.
Wes, 20, Keystone, and therefore responsible for the "calico cat" spotting, said, "If someone is cruising by themselves, they are a 'Han Solo,' because they have one hand on the steering wheel and the other on their light saber."
Having caught on to the game, or so I thought, I saw two guys riding by themselves in a jacked-up pickup. "Look," I pointed, "It's Sigfreid and Roy." Apparently, even amongst the guys, if a car or truck is cherried out or jacked up, you don't make fun of its occupants. Even if they have white tigers in the bed and sequins on their bodies. Boy, did I feel like a Richard Simmons.
At the next stop light, a car full of "wanna-be billy bad asses" (guys who think they're tough, but are, in fact, chopped liver), asked my driver how much he paid for his car. Before he could answer, I yelled out "A lot. Because he can't afford to buy good beer."
The light turned green and the engines redlined. Racing down State Street, weaving in and out of traffic, I dropped my beer and, subsequently found myself dropped off on the side of the road. I, apparently, had skipped the "State Street Etiquette" chapter in my "Miss Manners'" book. Making fun of someone's choice of beer, which you are drinking for free, is not considered gentlemanly. Excuse me, Terrance, Wes, Brock, Mike and Emily Post.
Having downed another beer, I was one more sheet to the wind, with several blocks to walk to my car, and in no condition to drive.
I approached a man sleeping on a bench and he invited me into his home. His name was High Hawk. My Indiglo said it was 1:43 in the morning, and High Hawk said, "Have a seat." The automatic sprinklers from the Court House had obviously been dousing High Hawk's home for sometime now. The seat was wet and so was his face, as memories of better times flooded his mind. I asked him if the people cruising State bothered him and he said that it got quiet around 2 a.m., so he'd be able to sleep. I couldn't help but wonder if he knew the time, because he knew when, for the sake of green grass, his roof would, once again, spring a leak.
I walked to Denny's and had breakfast. By the time I got back to my car, daylight was breaking over Salt Lake City. As others woke up, I went to sleep. In my bed, not on a bench. On Friday night, without even realizing it, I got lucky.
I do not willfully go for a drive on I-15 at rush hour. I don't stock my car full of alcohol in anticipation of a traffic jam. I suppose there are moments when I look forward to getting in my car. It's at those times when I am about to escape. I call this vacation, not the weekend.
Still missing the point, I realized I would have to spend another night hearing about horsepower and horseplay. I would once again be on State Street. This time sober.
Shortly after 10 o'clock, I parked my car on State at 300 South. I saw a group of officers congregating, bagel like, in an obtuse circle. In the mood to get an official point of view, I approached them.
We were at a bus stop on State and apparently UTA wasn't running this late and neither were the motor skills of the individual in question. A couple of quick sobriety tests proved this guy's name was "Mmmphff," and if John F. Kennedy's eternal flame needed a jump start we had a candidate who could breathe fire. After checking his wallet, the officers determined there was enough money for cabfare and quickly passed his wallet, and the buck, to Yellow Cab. Mr. Mmmphff was whisked away to his home on Mmmphff and 9th.
Once the matters at hand were handed off, I asked Officer Markovetz the question that had been eluding me my entire life. After he explained his thoughts for a perpetual motion machine, I asked him his theory on State Street. "To show off cars and meet girls."
"Go right to the source and ask the horse; he'll give you the answer that you endorse." Still wavering from my steady course, I said, "But what about prostitution, drugs, gangs, fights, anything please give me the dirt on State Street."
"There's not a lot on State," Markovetz said, "We control stuff like that," he said pointing to a guy running up to a car full of girls, stopping traffic but not a lot of hearts with his Pillsbury body.
Officer Walker interjected his view: "We do get our share of hit-and-runs and low-speed accidents. But for the most part, we just pull people over for minor infractions, like improper lane changes."
I believe they implied that State Street was simply organized chaos, but the batteries ran out on my tape recorder and my attention span followed. Not exactly the kind of stories keeping Fox's "Cops" on the air.
I took a commercial break and switched channels across the street to a group of guys milling around a pickup and a motorcycle.
My great opening line: "So why are you on State Street tonight?" And as I filter out the responses questioning my sexual identity, once again the common thread is to find the perfect "Siamese cat."
"And how does standing by Hardee's, long ago vacated, increase these odds for you?" I ask everyone, and no one in particular.
Jeremy, 17, the eloquent one, sums it up for these six musketeers: "Bullet bikes get the "manx" [a short-haired cat with no external tail]." To which, hooplas, yahoos and wooo-weees resonate from the crowd.
"But," I observe, "there is only one bike and six single guys."
A simple response from Jeremy. "That's all it takes."
I follow that up with a Larry King, hard-hitting, thought-provoking question: "If that's all it takes, then why are you all chickless, without girls; how shall I say, female non-grata?"
"Because," a bald boy, whose name escapes me and certainly many women on State Street, says. "The night is still young."
And so are you, my friend.
Behind me, I see the traffic has come to a stop, another one of those high-drama "improper lane changes" is taking place right before my very eyes. I look around for the officers and instead find a pickup full of rowdy roustabouts. Quicker than a girl in a yellow Civic can lift up her shirt, I'm riding in a truck looking for "sauce." Finally, a euphemism I can use.
"This is easy," I say. "Sauce are the women you're looking to pick up."
"Sauce is 'margay' [A small American spotted cat resembling the ocelot]," Johnny, 18, says to me, as though I flunked out of Mensa. "And we're looking for the hot sauce tonight." The "Hot Sauce," I'm told are the "female dogs" who give out more than their phone numbers. I wish I would have paid attention in zoology, because it only got more confusing.
"Sauce," Bill, 20, Budweiser, explained, "is the generic term for the lassies in general." As his two all-beef- patties explanation wore on, the family of "sauce" was broken down into several sauce genera:
"Special Sauce" is the girl you'll end up marrying; "Hot Sauce" is the girl you want for tonight only.
Then, as he continued on to Teriyaki, Tabasco and Soy sauce, the driver of the truck engaged in a road race, and fearing my Heinz 57 sauce was going to be splattered on State, I lost track of the conversation. When he got to Tartar Sauce, I was able to catch up.
"And Tartar Sauce," Bill, Budweiser, now Marlboro, says, "are the ugly ones we usually end up with."
When I see Bill is smoking, I ask what he thinks of the ban on Joe Camel. "I never smoked Camels, so I don't care, but watch this:" He then burps a perfect "Bud." The driver, Scott 20, Budweiser, burps, "Wise" and one of the 18-year-olds, in the bed of the truck with me, burps "Er."
I get this sneaky suspicion that Joe Camel is going to have plenty of company in the cartoon rest home. I also get this feeling of pavement under my feet, when I bail on this truck at the next light.
After many failed attempts, I have at last found a group of girls who welcome me into their sport-utility vehicle. Thanks for nothing, Andrew Cunanan, Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez. I feel as though I have received a reprieve from the governor. Finally, I can find the true meaning of State Street.
"You're from Layton and you have come to Salt Lake City to drive up and down State Street Why," I implore?
This is an alcohol-free sport-utility vehicle, but the words hit me like a shot of cheap tequila, "My sole purpose for being here," says Taya, 19, "is to have a guy give me a ride on his bullet bike."
My mouth feels like wood varnish smells. The cocky-crotch rocket youth, from earlier in the night, knew hours before I did what State Street was all about. Image. You have to be the guy who has the job that makes the money that buys the bike that gets the girl on State Street. And if you're the girl, I can only hope you want more than a machine.
Leaving State Street, by myself, I was Han Solo in my Battle Star Celica. Leonard Cohen was blaring warp speed from my tri-phonic stereo. One of these days I will be able to afford a new rear speaker. As Suzanne was taking me down to her place near the river, I stopped at a place near the Interstate, Alberto's.
When the food was handed to me, I had an epiphany: Although I don't know where I am going in my life, I know where I will never be on the weekends State Street. This dawning made me feel like I scored tonight when I ordered extra "hot sauce."
On State Street, you may meet the woman of your dreams or the man of your Prince Valiant fantasy. However, the phone number may not be the only thing fake the girl flashes at you this night, and Prince Valiant's white horse will be a motorcycle, not a stallion. If your main concerns on Friday and Saturday night are horsepower and hydraulics, then State Street is the place to meet.
If, however, when you dive into a person's mind you don't want to break your neck on the shallowness of their exhausted manifold, might I suggest getting as far away from State as humanly possible. Even if it means spending your weekend in another state, be it euphoria, tranquillity, oblivion or Idaho.
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