By Tom Judson
Originally published on Advocate.com August 20 2009 12:00 AM ET
John Steinbeck had his "Rocinante"; Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels had his "land yacht"; Ken Kesey had the "Further" bus. I will shortly join this illustrious and Quixotic fraternity on a road trip of my own in a modest little number I've dubbed "Canned Ham," a 50-year-old camper I just finished restoring (that entire process is documented on my blog ). And like the above-mentioned trio, I too will have a partner who'll be riding shotgun: my cat, Mickey. She will be my Charley, my Veronica Lake, my Merry Pranksters all rolled into one furry gray ball.
The reason I'll be traveling the country is to perform my one-man show (also called Canned Ham ), but my hope for this trip -- nay, this journey -- is to see the country as I have not done before. I've twice toured America with Broadway shows ( Cabaret , 42nd Street ) and hopped around a bit making personal appearances when I was known as "Gus Mattox, world's oldest porn star." But the sights on those kinds of travels are usually limited to whatever lies alongside the interstate spur between the airport and the downtown Radisson.
Now I'm on the lookout for attractions a bit more esoteric and local: the Uncle Sam memorial bridges, the world's largest wheels of cheese. I plan to sample the delicacies at the Maggie's Krooked Cafés and the Trolley Stop bakeries of the land. And I want to get to know the Bonnie-the-barbers, the Steve-the-Radical Faeries, and even plain old Joe, the guy at the end of the bar.
I've been looking down at America from 35,000 feet for too long. It's about time I see this country from the POV of that scorpion skittering across the hot asphalt of Route 66.
Since I've -- gulp -- never towed anything before in my life, I decided a short test run of the Canned Ham was in order. My friend Cass Morgan was chosen as the guinea pig for my first trip. You, dear readers, are the guinea pigs for this first column. I hope you'll feel free to respond to what you find here -- I can be reached at [email protected].
I'll be checking back into Advocate.com once a month with updates from the road.
In the Valley of Kings
Coxsackie, N.Y. -- The Canned Ham is a petite, 12-foot-long sweetheart. As I headed out to Vermont to see Cass, I stopped at the local RV place to pick up a few last-minute items like wheel chocks and leveling tabs. (No one said this column was going to be sexy.) When I came out of the store, I was taken aback by the diminutive stature of my retro baby in relation to these modern behemoths. Thanks to things like "slide-outs," the Canned Ham would literally fit sideways inside a few of the RVs pictured here. But mostly I was struck by the utilitarian beauty of my rig. It's as if the extent of the instructions the FAN Co. designers back in Wakarusa, Ind., received were, "Stove, icebox, sink, table, two beds. Make 'em fit."
I left the lot before Canned Ham could get sand kicked in its face.
Well, Maybe Just a Little Bit Sexy
Bennington, Vt. -- Never one to let a good, solid phallic symbol go to waste, I stopped for a visit at the Bennington Battle Monument, a "commemorative shaft" from the Revolutionary War. Seems those cantankerous New England Yankees managed to fend off some British general who was intent on seizing supplies and they thought a nice display of superiority was in order.
I've always chuckled at how many obelisks are scattered around marking victories of some sort. Can the choice of a thrusting, erect shaft really be meant as the obvious symbol it seems? Is it nothing more than the winner telling the loser, "Mine is bigger than yours"?
In that context the supine, passive Vietnam Memorial seems all the more profound and even, yes, potent.
Lost in Translation
"Hi, do you mind if I take a picture of my camper in front of your great sign?"
"You like the sign, huh? Did you know 'roxy' is European for 'porno'?"
"Uh, no, I 'European'?"
"Yeah, these three couples came in from Brussels, Belgium, and asked to take a picture in front of the sign. They said it means 'porno' where they come from."
"Actually, I don't think -- "
"Yeah, so these Belgium people, they go out front there and the women stand in front of the sign and just pull up their shirts. Their boobs was hanging right out and everything. I go out and says, 'The cops are gonna come if you don't watch it.' I didn't make the girls pull down their shirts, though. I tell ya, people are nuts."
"Uh, I'm just gonna go snap a picture."
"Nuts, I tell ya! Don't forget: porno!"
Nope, I won't forget.
The Divine Miss M.
Saxtons River, Vt. -- How apropos that my first visit on this road trip should be to Cass Morgan's place in Vermont: She and I first met on the road while touring in Cabaret . In addition, Cass is my cat's mamaw: I adopted Mickey from Cass's daughter several years back.
Cass's Broadway career spans from the original production of Hair to Pump Boys and Dinettes (she was one of the writers of that show as well) to Beauty and the Beast , Mary Poppins (the original "Bird Lady"), and the new musical Memphis, which she's about to open at the Shubert Theatre.
She has what is widely acknowledged to be one of the most glorious voices in theater (her performance as "Miss Jane" in Floyd Collins is proof enough) and I'm happy to have this recording of her singing one of my songs . It's called "In the Middle of the Night," and that's me playing accordion and singing backup.