This is a true story. Some of the names have been changed for obvious reasons.
To truly appreciate the origin of this story, and why we actually thought we would be guests on the David Letterman Show, it is important to understand exactly how drunk we were on that late September evening.
We are talking about some serious alcohol, boys and girls.
We were hammered. We were plowed. We were shitfaced, stone-cold, blathering, barely-could-walk drunk.
It was 1986, and I had just discovered the literary genius of Hunter S. Thompson. I was a quarter century behind, so I had some serious catching up to do.
Jackson wasn’t in much better shape. We weaved our way along Spring Street in Portland through the pre-dawn darkness, headed toward our rat-hole apartment on the lunatic edge of the West End.
If memory serves, we giggled as we staggered along, kicking trash cans in the days long before recycling bins.
It had been a long day. Jackson and I were roommates, and we worked at the same Old Port restaurant. He was a flamboyant homosexual, so naturally he was a waiter.
I was a down-on-my-luck college drop-out, so naturally, I worked in the kitchen. The odds of either of us sleeping with a woman anytime in the near future were beyond comprehension.
“Shit!” Jackson blurted quite suddenly, pausing on the sidewalk and looking like he was about to do something really stupid.
I found my balance and attempted a turn so I could face him. “What?” I asked, thinking I might vomit at any given moment.
“We missed Letterman,” he said, his jaw slackening as the color rushed from his already pale face. “Dammit, I hate when that happens.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “I’ve seen enough stupid pet tricks to last a lifetime.”
Jackson was seriously annoyed, and he stared forlornly at his feet. I turned back toward my wayward march home but something caught my eye and made me freeze in my tracks.
It was draped over an aluminum trash can, and its grotesque beauty was highlighted by a flickering street lamp. It was a black velvet painting of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the tackiest thing I had come across in my 22 years on planet Earth.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing at my discovery.
Jackson’s face brightened. He temporarily forgot all about David Letterman, at least for the next 48 seconds or so. “It’s perfect, he said, rushing over to examine the canvass more closely. “It’s perfect for the dining room!”
Did I mention Jackson was a flamboyant homosexual?
We immediately seized our new treasure and continued our trek toward Neal Street, laughing about all the things we could do with this discarded and stained piece of magic debris.
We contemplated a very early breakfast at the Denny’s on outer Congress Street, but we barely had the energy or aptitude to make it to our apartment. And driving was certainly out of the question.
So instead, Jackson brewed a pot of coffee as I sat on the couch, staring into the black velvet eyes of America’s sixteenth president.
If you ask Jackson, he will swear it was his idea. But it’s my story, and I prefer to remember that it was an alcohol-induced epiphany of my own making.
He was still puttering in our tiny kitchen when I shared my idea. “We should take pictures of this thing all over town,” I hollered toward the kitchen.
Jackson walked into the living room with the pot of coffee. “No, we should take it on a cross-country trip and submit the photos to David Letterman,” he said.
Maybe it was the Seagram’s talking. Maybe it was because I could not imagine my life getting much worse, but whatever the reason, my imagination raced. “Yeah,” I said, sitting forward on the couch. “We’ll visit really lame tourist traps all over the country and ask people we meet to pose with Abe.”
We were still too wasted to consider the consequences of our conversation.
“We’ll call it the Lincoln Tour,” Jackson pronounced.
I said what any other penniless, 22-year-old man would say. “Let’s do it!”
The Adventure Begins
Neither of us had any money, but unlike me — Jackson had convinced Key Bank to give him a credit card some three months before. He had also just made his final payment on a 1980 Mercury Zephyr station wagon. The car was fire-truck red with a chrome roof rack.
We had crappy jobs and shared a crappy apartment. He didn’t have a boyfriend, and I didn’t have a girlfriend. The way we saw it, there was nothing to lose.
We loaded the Zephyr with our prized possessions before quitting our respective jobs. It was Sunday afternoon, and we called a few friends to meet us for brunch. We could not wait to tell them about our plans.
There was only one glitch. We would have to sedate Jackson’s 13-year-old cat, Moses. Otherwise, we didn’t know how we could get the cat to his sister’s house in Gloucester, Mass.
We didn’t need maps. We figured it would be easy enough to get to L.A. by just following road signs. We each borrowed some money from friends. It went without saying that those loans would never be repaid. We sold or abandoned whatever possessions that could not fit into the car.
It was now almost 5 p.m., and the sun was already fading as our collective hangovers switched into high gear.
On Day One, we barely made it to Gloucester. Moses did not enjoy the ride. He escaped from his box and scratched everything in sight, including my limbs and neck.
Undaunted, we soldiered on, and dropped our first postcard to David Letterman on Monday morning at the Gloucester Post Office.
Back then, Letterman was still with NBC, so our plan was simple: we would build mystery and excitement by sending periodic teasers to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Each postcard or dining room placemat would read: Look for the Lincoln Tour: Coming to a town near you very soon!
We had only 2,918 miles to go, and we were excited to begin our traveling documentary. We bought six cartridges of film for my Kodak Instamatic camera, a giant bag of Fritos and new sunglasses for Jackson.
We talked excitedly about what we would say as guests on the David Letterman Show and set our sights on Philadelphia for the first real day of driving.
I could share all sorts of details about those first few days, but this is supposed to be a short story. So I will skip details about the big fight we had in Manassas, Virginia, when I missed the exit three times. Nor will I discuss the 12 days we spent with Jackson’s friend, Fat Sam, in Knoxville, Tennessee, or details about another fight while camping along the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Jackson was upset that I did buy into his theory of how eating salsa would help keep you warm when it’s very cold outside.
Instead, suffice it to say that we took lots and lots of photos. In each picture, Abe Lincoln was prominently featured. We conned people into posing for the pictures by telling them that we were crew members from the Letterman Show.
A Kentucky tourist who was vacationing with his family in Gettysburg grew a bit suspicious about our story. “How do I know you’re really with the Letterman show? “ he inquired, squinting at me like a Border Patrol agent in Nogales, Arizona.
“It’s okay, honey,” his chubby wife replied, pointing at our car. “They have Maine license plates. It must be for real.”
Jackson and I were both stunned by the collective gullibility of the American people. Their intense desire to perhaps have their photo selected for a national television show immediately vanquished any doubts about our credibility or the purpose of our mission.
We photographed tourists at the Lincoln Memorial, the Natural Bridge in Virginia and at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We took photos of the young and the old, the rich and the poor.
We got a picture of a Maryland State Trooper holding the black velvet portrait of Lincoln; there was a cute waitress at the Lincoln Diner in Gettysburg that I still cannot forget.
A lady in Oklahoma wanted to know why I was using such a shitty camera.
I didn’t flinch. “It needs to look authentic,” I explained. “These are supposed to look like any other typical family vacation pictures. It’s what Dave wants.”
Her boyfriend was not convinced. “Why don’t you have a release form or something?” he asked.
I let my annoyance show. “Look,” I barked. “You wanna be on the fucking show or not?”
He shrugged and grabbed Abe, waiting for me to frame the shot.
And that’s how it went for the next 15 days.
Jackson did most of the driving since I didn’t have a valid driver’s license. We asked everyone we met to send a note to the Letterman show, telling them about seeing the Lincoln Tour. Most everyone eagerly agreed. A few of them even offered to personally call the NBC studios in New York.
We took more photos. A homeless man in Santa Fe; a group of college kids in Albuquerque and an art dealer in Little Rock.
We never made it to L.A. We ran out of money in Tucson, Arizona. I got a job bussing tables at the Red Robin restaurant at the Tucson Mall. Jackson got a job as a waiter at a much nicer restaurant.
Of course, we called NBC to see when they would like to meet with us. We got bounced to an intern in the assistant producer’s office. “We’re the guys from the Lincoln Tour,” Jackson announced as I watched him pace with the telephone.
The intern seemed less than pleased. “What the hell is the Lincoln Tour? Our mail room has been flooded with stuff about the Lincoln Tour.”
Jackson patiently explained our saga. The intern promised to call us back.
That was 26 years ago.
I’m still waiting for that phone call from David Letterman.