I just finished reading the memoir “Elephant Girl: A Human Story,” by writer/blogger Jane Devin. After a staggeringly difficult life that looks as if it might end in suicide, the heroine somehow finds her way and decides to go on a road trip across the USA, writing about her experiences and interviewing people she’d met through her blog, many of whom offered her places to stay along the way. Before she left, she approached General Motors, because she’d heard that they were involved in supporting various networking events for women. The upshot was that they gave her a sponsorship to test drive a number of their cars during her trip.
When I read that I thought, wow! I wish there had been something like that back in the late 60s when I went on my road trip from Boston to Guatemala with my five-year old daughter! Instead of testing a series of brand-new vehicles, I bought a second-hand VW van with bald tires, because that’s all I could afford on my pay as a lounge pianist in a Mafia-owned club in Boston. But I did have my own little windfall. Here’s an abridged version of how I describe what happened, in my book, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My adventures in the world of jazz, Rio, and beyond”:
My idea was to buy some sort of vehicle and drive as far as I could in the direction of Brazil. I continued to work at the Mafia club and finally scraped together enough money to buy an old Volkswagen van and get it fixed up. But I didn’t have enough money for new tires to replace the balding ones that came with it.
One night when I was playing at the gig, an elegant, well-dressed elderly gentleman came in with several other people and they sat down right near the piano bar. I noticed that he was watching me the entire time I was singing and playing and barely spoke with his friends. When it was time for my break he immediately stood up and walked over to me.
“Hello,” he said with a kindly smile. “My name is James Pettibone and I’ve enjoyed your playing and singing very much. What’s your name, dear?”
“Thank you,” I said and told him my name. Mr. Pettibone asked me to join him at his table, where he introduced me to his friends and invited me to sit down. It was very pleasant and they all asked me lots of questions about how I got started in music, did I like my work, and so on. As the conversation progressed and I began to feel comfortable with this little group, I ended up telling them my secret: I was planning to drive to Brazil with my five-year old daughter in a second-hand VW van.
Mr. Pettibone’s eyes opened wide and he said, handing me his business card, “You’re an adventurous girl! I’ll tell you what—I’m the president of the Vulco Rubber Company. If you stop by the office one day before you leave and sing a song for me and my colleagues, I’ll give you four new tires for your van.”
I couldn’t believe my luck! I had no reason to believe that he wasn’t serious, so the following week I took the subway to the Vulco company and rode the elevator up to Mr. Pettibone’s office, guitar in hand. I was greeted by a group of smiling people, including the ones who’d been at the club that night. They all shook my hand, along with Mr. Pettibone himself, who hugged me warmly as if I were his daughter. I sat down with my guitar and played and sang “When I Fall in Love” and “Guantanamera.” Everyone applauded, and then Mr. Pettibone led me into his office, where he signed a voucher for the tires. I thought, “This is the way life is really supposed to be!” I thanked him profusely and he shook my hand and wished me a safe trip.
So even though I didn’t get a sweet deal with a major car company, nor was there any internet in those days to create a network of friends that I could visit along the way, I had my unexpected gift of four beautiful new tires from a man I’d never met!
To read more about my trip and my life: