U.S. ROUTE 1 ODYSSEY: Lost Heart of the Interstates

THERE is much to learn along an old road.First, Route 1 has plenty of rural and urban stoplights, reasons to stop and look before the past is gobbled by the march of video stores, fitness gyms, and huge auto dealers. Second, for those who do not drive regularly along an old road like most of Route 1, life elsewhere in the United States has become centrifugal, a spinning away from old values and considered directions. Route 1 teaches this clearly. What's the hurry? Turn west off Route One near Augusta, Ga., after 10 days of stop-and-start driving up through Florida from Key West, and the straight, colorless, thundering line of cars and trucks along Interstate 95 is robotic. There are two speeds here, faster and fastest. Route 1 is an argument for a real there, a hearty ribbon of life, a bounty of people living in beauty and junk, all covered by a kind of slow, old shadow. It is no escape route. It is a low-amp rural road that happens to go through the urban clangor of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark, and Washington D.C. At first the tendency is to romanticize the route. But a reality check comes quickly on the humid night when Neal and I arrive in Key West to start our journey. At dusk a lively crowd always gathers at Mallory Square to help the sun go down only a stone's throw from Route 1. People are dressed in the wrinkled whites and yellows of permanent summer. Artists, magicians, palm readers, pantomimes, guitars, steel drums, and food vendors keep the mood easy and light like a salad. But a slim, dark-haired man named Tim Eric adds the hot potato. Surrounded by a crowd, he stands in a canvas straight jacket with a dozen strands of chains wrapped and padlocked around his torso and hips. Volunteers from the crowd have chained him. "I know this is a juice town, a drug town," he tells the crowd, chains rattling, "but drugs are for losers. They not only destroy individuals, but communities too." Although I didn't know it then, the issue of drugs would come up again and again along Route 1, as pernicious here as anywhere. "Tell President Bush," an angry farmer standing in a peanut field in Georgia would tell me later, "it is the No. 1 problem in America." Eric moves to the right, chains rattling. "This is a drug-free show," he says. "A lot of times we put on straight jackets, and chains and can't get them off." For the next half hour he denies the chains by slowly freeing himself. He leans, twists, bends, contorts his body on the pavement, and chain by chain - sweat pouring from his face - he frees himself. Am I stretching the obvious? Should he be a metaphor for the US? For all the sideshow atmosphere, it is an extraordinary escape, eliciting empathy from the staring crowd, some of whom lean and screw up their faces with him as he struggles. He is showman and advocate at the same time. A cheer goes up as each chain falls away. The sun goes down, red and blazing behind him. "This is not funny," Eric says later about his effort, about drugs chaining the everyday world. "This is serious." Drugs were serious back in the mid-'70s, too, when Key West was drug drenched thanks to the fire chief, the city attorney, and the son of the police chief, all of whom were indicted and convicted for drug trafficking. Federal and county authorities cleaned house. "Now," says Lee Thompson, a community worker and a Key West resident for 11 years, "city politics are still full of stress, but unfortunately crack is at the social level with professional people using it as well as the poor people." Of course, there is another Key West, a hard-working, community-based Key West where drugs are fought. On good nights the tourist crowd leaves $200 in a black bucket for Eric and the stuffed panda guarding it. "My mother can't stand watching me do this," he says, "but the message is important to me. I don't pass the hat because this is a message for people with or without money." He's been escaping chains on and off for six years in Key West, and for 23 years in a lot of other places including Alaska. A number of times he's blacked out when the chains became twisted around his throat. On one occasion a downpour sent the spectators scurrying for cover while he continued to unchain himself alone in the rain. Only a handful of times has he been unable to free himself and had to be unlocked. "This is not a trick like Harry Houdini did," says Eric. "I struggle right before your eyes." What keeps him going - in addition to the money - is the hope that a kid or two will see his struggle and think twice before taking drugs. "I used drugs," he says. Now he meditates, even during his de-chaining act. "This is the perfect place for an antidrug message," he says. Ah, Key West, the incomparable, free-wheeling Conch Republic, the imperfect perfect place, noncentrifugal, a town with Southern traits but no Southern allegiance, home of the languid stare and the generous heart. Home once for Ernest Hemingway and Harry S. Truman, and now home for the Margaret Truman Drop-Off Launderette at the corner of Margaret Street and Truman Avenue. OWNER Barbara Knowles has lived in Key West for 35 years. She washes clothes for $5 a bundle. "It's hard work," she says, pausing to let Neal take her photo by the red fireplug near the front door. She echoes what nearly everybody here says: "I love Key West." "Being here is almost like not being in the US," says Vaughn Cochran, formerly of Mexico, Costa Rica, and other places. At Mallory Square he sells brightly painted coconuts for $12 that can be sent through the mail just like a postcard to anywhere in the world. Ah, Key West, where at first Neal and I can't find the end to Route 1, the point to mark our start to the north. We can't find it. We drive slowly down side streets and finally ask a man in a bright blue shirt with gold chains around his neck. He is sitting in a chair on the sidewalk, fanning himself with a white fan. Is the end of Route 1 somewhere south of here, we ask him. He stares at us. "Ain't no south that way," he says, pointing south as if any fool knows even the south ends somewhere. Ah, Key West. We find the last (or first) Route 1 sign at the intersection of Fleming and Whitehead. For us it is the sign of beginning....

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