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May 19, 2024
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It was the first time I ran away from home.

I was fifteen in 1971 and school had just closed for summer vacation. I was fat. At five-foot-two-and-a-half-inches tall and a Junior Size 13 pants, let’s just say at least my lower half was disproportionate to my height, and I was embarrassed to wear a bathing suit in public. It was all about the thighs. They were roiled with excess wiggles of flab – a wicked combustion of puberty and genetics. Dieting was useless and my endless hours of exploring Atlanta’s winding hills on my bike didn’t make a dent in my flab other than to tighten my calf muscles.

I was a self-made outcast. I hated my body and I hated myself. And I was certain that people knew this and were critical of me because of it. So, I figured drastic measures were in order.

Without telling anyone except my best friend, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for Panama City. I’d been there before on family vacations, so I was comfortable with the idea of it if not familiar with its various beaches and bi-ways. My hope was that separating myself from the temptations of my suburban family’s refrigerator, replete with Sarah Lee poundcake, full-fat cheeses and other temptations, plus walking along the beach for several days would find me in slenderer shape.

Good thought, bad follow-through.

I had no plan, no expectations. Subliminally, that food in the fridge represented all of the people in my family who I thought were ruining my life… my peers in high school with whom I felt no connection… and the general alienation I felt from the stifling middle-class values that pervaded my upbringing. I had already rebelled by becoming a vegetarian, but it wasn’t enough. Of one thing I was certain: I had to get away from it all.

The first night of my arrival, I stole some sleep on a poolside chaise at the nearest beachfront hotel, then spent a full day traipsing along white-hot Florida sand, only to be rewarded with a fiery sunburn. The second night I camped near the ocean, my knapsack serving as a pillow. A stranger in light blue clothing awakened me at dawn. On his shirt, reflected morning light glinted from something metallic. A badge.

“Excuse me, you know it’s illegal to sleep on the beach.”

“Oh, I didn’t know… really…”
“Okay, how old are you? Do you have ID? And how much money do you have on you?”

“I’m 15. And I have around 25 dollars. Here’s my learner’s license – but you aren’t gonna call my parents or anything are you? Please… don’t. I… I’ll be heading back home soon anyway.”

Whatever happened next, I figured I was sunk. He’d either throw me in jail or call my parents and scare the shit out of them or send me home on the nearest Greyhound bus, the same way I came.

“You can’t stay on the beach. It’s loitering, or camping, but anyway, it’s illegal. So I’ll have to ask you to leave right now. Either get on home or find a place to stay. Get yourself some money together to get on home, but you can’t stay here.”

Whew! I copped a break. A little scared and a lot intimidated, I could have found the nearest pay phone and called my parents to wire me money to get home. But that would be a total cop-out and I had to see this thing through on my own.

I picked up my sunburned body and struggled on my way. Out on the street, there was still little relief from the heat of the day, so I cautiously headed back toward the ocean in search of a motel pool where I could cool off. Here in this strange place where no one knew me, I wasn’t as self-conscious about my appearance, and certainly no one would judge me as harshly as they had at home, so I thought. This made it easy to strike up a conversation with other teens hanging by the pool. Despite not having a place to bed down and not knowing what I was going to do for money and food, a feeling of relaxation began to wash over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Where are you from?” asked one young girl, probably a couple of years older than me.

“Atlanta. I just got kicked off the beach for, like, loitering or something.”

“Loitering? What were you doing, drinking or something?”

“No, I… I… I fell asleep on the sand…

“Ohh, I get it. So, you don’t have a place to stay?”

“Um, well, no, not yet…”

“Hey, if you don’t find a place tonight, you’re welcome to crash in my room. Room 312. Just knock. My name’s Julie.”

It would certainly make my limited funds go further. So I graciously thanked her.

I’m not sure what I did the rest of the day, just sort of hung out, but at nightfall I found myself knocking on room number 312. Someone other than Julie opened the door.

“Uh, is Julie here? She said I could crash here for the night.”

“Come on in, I guess,” said a young pimple-faced guy. There were about six or seven other people hanging out in the room. Beer cans were strewn everywhere and from a transistor radio blared a Jimi Hendrix song. Hendrix was my hero! I’d played the album Band of Gypsies so many times on my cheap record player that I knew exactly where the permanent pops and scratches would come through on each song. A couple of people were already asleep on one of the two beds. It was definitely a party atmosphere, but not too crazy. I had been to a couple of wild parties given by high school buddies at home, but this was so different. Not knowing anyone meant not knowing what would happen from one minute to the next. I was nervous and excited; it was like taking a dive into a pool before testing the temperature, plunging into uncharted waters.

But I happen to be a good swimmer, and the metaphor fit. So I was fearless. As I entered the room, for a fleeting instant I sensed the freedom that comes from making my own choices and being in control.

“I’m John. Julie said she has reserved the bed for herself. So, well, you’ll have to sleep on the floor.”

Tall and lanky with a wide, toothy smile, John reached out to shake my hand. He seemed like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. A genuinely friendly person with absolutely no ulterior motives, no pretense, no mischievous intent, John was the self-anointed official greeter.

Since not being picked up by the police was top of mind, I welcomed the safety of the room. Floor or bed, it didn’t matter. I gratefully slung my knapsack onto the sticky carpet and searched for a place to stretch out.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. John ushered in two more people. This continued all evening, the room filling up with young people who were tired, drunk, high, or all three. The place had become a crash pad for wayward teens.

A good night’s sleep was impossible. There were loud discussions about keeping the radio on, turning it down, getting more beer, where could we cop some more weed for everyone to share, who had more matches, and how we would hide the evidence if the motel manager came to the door. We were also running out of toilet paper and had to find a find a volunteer to get more from the motel lobby.

Interestingly, although smoking was allowed inside the rooms, we unanimously agreed to forbid cigarette smoking inside the room, while pot was just fine. As a joint was handed to me, I shot a wary look at the guy who had just taken a toke. A fleeting concern crossed my mind. What if he had some weird disease? Could I catch something through his saliva? Should I even care?

I quickly sized up the situation and in an instant (my mind worked fast in those days) I created a pact with myself. You chose to come here, you decided to sleep here, so it’s time to chill. Don’t second-guess yourself. Go with the flow.

So I took a toke and passed it along to a skinny girl with long, stringy blond hair. That was the kind of skinny I was striving for, even if she wasn’t every pretty. I believed that if only I was thin I could be happy, or at least feel free enough within my body to go wherever I wanted and feel comfortable with anyone in any situation. But looking at that girl sitting beside me, with her sunken, scared eyes and bony knees drawn up to her chest, I thought, no, I definitely wouldn’t want to be like her. I mean, it would be nice to be about 20 pounds lighter and never worry about my wiggly thighs, but as I pondered her further, it occurred to me that I had better stop comparing myself to other people or it would ruin me. All it was doing was making me miserable. To protect myself from what I thought other people thought of me, I had constructed an illusory wall, an emotional barrier that kept others at a distance. Here, I was being fully accepted by people of all shapes and sizes, girls and guys of various races. That wall was turning into rubble.

And then and there I realized it wasn’t home I wanted to flee, it wasn’t even my body from which I wanted to escape. I needed a friend, and desperately needed that friend to be, well, me.

All the noise and talk and knocks on the door, the coming and going, made it difficult to doze off even for a few minutes. My space on the floor kept getting smaller, and by morning, I was squished in-between two people, my face crunched against the back of hoodie that smelled like pepperoni pizza and cheap sangria. I think I may have drooled on the hoodie, I’m not sure. The limited space forced a lot of skin-to-skin contact, but there was nothing sexual about it. We were all too exhausted or wasted and anyway it was just too crowded for any hanky panky. By the early morning rays of an already steamy sun streaming through a window, I counted about 25 of us curled up or stretched out on the floor and the beds.

And then it was daybreak. Someone opened a large bag of Fritos and offered it to me.

“Breakfast. Have some,” he said.

It was then I spotted Julie. She was friendly but a little perturbed that her generosity had resulted in this rag-tag horde of people traipsing through her space.

“Hey, we’re gonna have to be cool about all this. If the motel manager finds out so many people are staying in my room, I’ll be in trouble… and I don’t want to get kicked out. I’m planning to stay a couple more nights. I wanna make sure I have a good tan before I go back home.”

A couple of visitors offered to give her a few dollars if she’d let them stay, and she accepted. I thanked her for letting me stay. She smiled and held my arm for a few seconds.

“Look, I didn’t mind you staying here at all. Sorry it was crazy.”

“But Julie, do you actually KNOW any of these people?”

“Yeah, those two girls on the bed. We came down from Pennsylvania. Drove the whole way. We’re on a tight budget and, well, other people are in the same predicament and really, everyone here’s been really nice, and it’s been fun, but, maybe it’s time to scale back.”

I told her I might see her around, and with bleary eyes and still suffering from the sunburn, I tumbled onto the street. I had enough cash to stay in a cheap motel for a couple of nights. And, after walking several blocks, cheap I did find. I had never seen so many roaches — they call them palmetto bugs in the South — in one room. I slept with the light on in hopes it would minimize their constant scurrying, and I stomped on as many as I could. For seven bucks a night and cold, running water to salve my skin, it was worth it.

Still, I knew I had to find a way home. I mean, it was never my intention to be a permanent runaway. Hitchhiking was out of the question (and I was the last person to have predicted it would be totally in the question a few years later) and that meant I needed more money. And although they would have gladly paid for a flight home, calling my parents was another thing that was out of the question.

This was MY quest and I had to see it through MY way and not wimp out. So after a couple of recuperative days I snuck my head into a few retail stores and hotels to boldly describe my plight and ask for temporary work.

“I can work as long as you need me. A few days, a week or two. I’m being honest. I’m from Atlanta and just need enough money to catch a bus home. I can start right away.”

I spotted a small, old but clean cafeteria a short distance from the motel. My honesty apparently made an impact on the manager, a sweet, balding, rotund man who said he had a daughter about my age and he would do me a good turn.

They would give me a hair net and a long apron to wear — conveniently covering up my cutoff jean shorts and sleeveless tank top — and I would dish out heaping servings of mushy squash casserole and canned beans soaking in bacon grease and overcooked fried fish slathered in day-old béarnaise sauce.

I worked a solid five days in that place. It was a great feeling to have cash in hand – about $64.00 — for committed effort. It was an even better feeling to finally be rid of the roach-infested motel. As I untied my apron for the last time, I exalted in my accomplishment. My adventure was coming to a close but I felt a door was opening. I had tripped up a few times, yet I came out ahead. I was a stronger person, a more trusting person, and even more important, it was the first time I felt I could trust the one person I would be living with the rest of my life: myself.

As the bus rambled away from the station, my thighs sticking to the damp, sweaty vinyl seats and my hands resting atop my knapsack, I was comforted by the aimless chatter among the jumble of strangers — black ladies in lacy cotton summer dresses, farmers in overalls, children clutching dolls and toy trucks and clinging to their mothers, young working-class men gazing at the landscape buzzing by, dreamers hoping for a better future.  And the intermingling of odors among the passengers — perfume and peanut butter crackers, after-shave lotion and bologna sandwiches, perspiration and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum — created an earthy admixture that had a calming effect on my soul.

I felt at home among these people. As if I belonged on the road. But in an odd way, I looked forward to coming home, too. Because even though my body wasn’t toned, my mind was attuned to an energy I’d never felt before, my nerve endings tingled with the anticipation of what it might be like to escape again, to explore other places, to take more chances. And mainly to make my own decisions about who I wanted to be with and where I wanted to go.

What my parents were thinking, what their punishment to me might be, or how they would react to my running away, did not consume my mind at all. I knew the ups and downs, the challenges and the exhilaration, of running away, of being on the move. And I just wanted more.

Ellen Berman is a professional marketing and advertising copywriter, editor and erstwhile journalist whose articles have appeared in a variety of consumer, trade and business publications both regionally and nationally.

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