Robo-Tripping by Leo Mason

My mind was moving in so many different directions, I just recall talking nonstop to Chamberlain, allowing my paranoia to increase, trying to stay in control. There was $40 in my pocket for the first time in 19 months. The prison gave it to me, my gate money, just enough to get in trouble, or a bus out of town.

Luckily, I had a ride, Chamberlain, whom I’d known since 8th grade, 35 years ago. He had a silver Ford F150. Suddenly there was inspiration, excitement. Rock and Roll were back together again. Mouths and ears running, the radio on Coldplay pop, we hopped aboard the F150 and steered out of the prison parking lot. From midstate New York to Tampa, Florida, with a stopover in South Carolina.

“Do you need anything?” Chamberlain said, “I mean you just got out.”

“Right, stop at a drug store,” I said, knowing what I needed but too paranoid to tell. He asked no questions. With the fast $40, I grabbed two eight-ounce bottles of Robitussen, a “share size” bag of M&Ms, and then we were right back on the road.

He talked about work, the wife, the truck repairs and I downed one bottle in three gulps. The cherry sour taste made my face sideways and I gagged a couple times. A dude next to me at Marcy Prison said I could get high by drinking cough medicine and it wouldn’t show up on a drug test. Parole drug tests freed felons with the hope of putting them right back in prison.

With my old friend B.E. at my side, I wanted to be a trouble-maker again, be me, be the me the states, courts, judges, prosecutors and cops tried to change. I follow laws, but not their laws. I didn’t want to rob a bank or deal meth—nothing major, just break the parole laws they set for me without getting caught.

It wasn’t a Four Loko or an opiate pill, but as I soon found out how to do it, I was in for a trip. Alanis had explained to me it was like being drunk and on acid, and it was hard to Robo-Trip without people knowing. I knew it was kicking in when we got to a bumper-to-bumper spot in the road and I started laughing when I was explaining something.

Alanis had explained what was going to happen to me: “You’ll get happy, start talking a lot, then you’ll throw up, you’ll have energy and you’ll love other people. A lot like acid, no you won’t be able to hide it.” Chamberlain and I had been wasted many times together, but I didn’t want him to judge me now after we’d been reunited as friends from a decade of ice. Ten years back, he saw my life going in the place it ended up, and he gave up on me.

My parents met with him a few months back when he was cruising through Florida, making a call or two for Prudential on some homes damaged in a hurricane. My folks knew about our long friendship that began in childhood on Regent Street, and our estrangement because of my lifestyle. Chamberlain told them, “I want my friend back.”

Mom and Dad were aware the prison had set a leave date for me—somehow, through a miracle—it coincided with a work-related trip Chamberlain had scheduled to New York. He said he’d pick me up, thus my airplane plans and costs were a problem no one had to deal with.

I was rather paranoid about the cough medicine experiment. Our friendship might be riding on it, did he know what I was doing, would he care, would I freak out, get sick, or worse? Caution was tossed aside. The medicine was in me now, and my stomach did feel funny. I think the ride and our fresh conversation settled me down—I was finally free. Not free for rum and opiates, but free from the prison.

Euphoria was accompanied by mild stomach discomfort. The time, all those hours on U.S. 19, began to drift by. I no longer knew time, other than it being a sunny day. I had to feel more freedom so, to Chamberlain’s chagrin, I opened my window, breathing in the August breeze. New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, I just kept talking and listening to B.E.’s stories of all our friends, their good times and woes. A friend’s son died of an opiate overdose, his wife wanted a new truck, the kids were doing well at their own first jobs.

I put the radio on at the prison driveway but neither of us paid much attention to it until we got into Virginia and stopped at a burger place for some “to go” food. He pumped some diesel and we were back on the road to The Who. I was going to go into the store at the gas station, but my legs were rubber from the cough medicine. I didn’t feel sick and didn’t know what I was doing, and I downed another bottle of that cherry flavor. All this time I had been riding and talking, B.E. seemed not to notice or care I was high. I did fear all my chatter and my negative (inmate) attitude were getting to him.

Dusk came and the second bottle kicked in. We were either in West Virginia or North Carolina when I started to hallucinate. I still had my window open, Chamberlain kept complaining, but I had to keep it down—faces were coming to visit me. There were faces on my left and on my right. They were faces of ambivalence, not caring, men with beards, women with pony tails. It was like they were pressed slightly, as if behind glass, like a daguerreotype. A face would appear at my side, hover, and disappear to make room for a new face. These ancient people were coming to see me, temporary visions. I could keep them all straight, but I didn’t dare tell B.E. or he’d know I was tweaked. I tried my best to keep my end of the conversation going.

Finally, we came to a mountain stop, a gas station in North Carolina. We climbed part of the hill, and that was the only time I nearly got sick on the trip. A gas station, diner and travelers’ notions stores were built into the side of this steep Carolina mountain. I nearly threw up out the passenger side, spitting a bunch of times and avoiding it. Nothing was evened out—you were always at a sharp angle. I couldn’t walk it, though B.E. made his way alright. He was focused on me, so my cough medicine paralysis didn’t disturb him. Like a zombie learning again to balance, I fought my way back into the cab of the truck. The seat was crooked! Where my faces were to keep me company on this trip, I did not know, but I wanted back on the road. I worried about getting pulled over. I worried about the hallucinations. Would they stop?

It got dark and B.E. said we were close enough to his South Carolina house to stay the night there. Even though I had never been there, it felt like home. I’d known his wife, Carol, as long as back when they were dating. Every house they ever had together had that “woman’s touch” people used to talk of. It meant doilies, placemats, matching towels, comfort and love. She was a traditional old Christian gal, that Carol. I needed some domestication after being hung-down, brung-down, and strung-out to die in jail.

When he said we were “near,” me and my many changing faces of the Robitussen wilderness figured he meant a few minutes. We drove for another hour! Then we reached his “driveway,” and I thought finally. Ten minutes later and it was still just a long, winding road in the woods, no house in sight. The faces stopped and the driveway went into a small development of upscale houses, fronted by southern ranch-style fencing. We’re here, B.E. said, and ambled the truck up to a tall and wide white house with black shutters. My hallucination was over, but I was hyped up, wanting to talk. Sleep felt hours away.

Carol was in bed, B.E. was shutting down to where he’s too tired to talk to anyone, their son was chatty but had to go to bed because of work. B.E. put me in a bookless room and said “No,” when I asked for a book to help calm me down. The two black labs investigated me. I sat on the bed and saw a yearbook on the floor. It was their son’s. I read that for ten minutes and lay down with the light on. Then I was gone, all my jail-issue clothes on, into a world of nonsense dreams that ended about eight hours later when old Carol called me to breakfast. The alcohol-free cough medicine gave me the rest of the dead, and I had trouble with my legs.

As a joke, Carol and I reintroduced ourselves and she gave me a cup of coffee. She disappeared to the shower and I talked briefly with Number One Son. The Chamberlain family’s lives had carried on as if I’d never existed. New house, new jobs, boys growing up. I was the ghost, the hallucinated face. I had no footing in this house as I had over the years with B.E.’s other houses, where it seemed like I owned something. I guess I owned part of a friendship. I’d lost and gained again. But it was fragile. Like I felt the way they felt; no one at the house was used to me anymore. Reintroducing myself had not been a joke after all.

We were back out on the road after goodbyes, South Carolina to Florida, nine hours. B.E. had to get something at Walmart. I bought two more bottles of Robitussin. I thought about Alanis and when he’d be back in the cough medicine business again. Not until December. That was his leave date. I knew what he’d be doing when he got out. Once my first dose sank in, B.E.’s phone rang, and it was my parents.

When I left the prison, I was given a brown paper shopping-size bag from the Infirmary. It was stapled at the top and “MEDS” was written on the side. When I opened the bag, my medical meds were there but not my mental health meds. We were gone so I called my folks on B.E.’s cell to tell them to tell the prison. Rounds of phone calls hours later led them to believe—as a prison will—that I had done something wrong and was trying to get more meds. Absurd.

This call to me was from my Dad. The prison wanted to know who opened the bag. I had been away from that place less than 24 hours and they were already dragging me in to a new minidrama. Bam! Paranoia hit. The administration was going to blame me and say, “See he cannot live life outside of an institution.” My father tried to calm me down, but I was cough medicine high, having cough medicine paranoia. Somehow, he finally got the prison to instruct the Infirmary to mail the rest of my medication to me at their address. They never admitted their mistake, but this was good enough. Yet my paranoia had been stoked.

It was sunny on the highway and we were settled into the journey. I decided to calm down in the Southern heat, or I’d lose my mind. And you can’t let The Man make you lose your mind. I did what the Hippies would do—enjoy the ride and the trip.

I downed the last bottle but just got philosophical, between listening to the radio and eating leftover M&Ms. I didn’t remember stopping to eat but suddenly French fries were in my hands. B.E. lectured me on my parents’ financial threshold, urging me to seek work. That was him and I didn’t blame him for it. He grew up in a poor home with two brothers. He strived to make good money, first in construction and then insurance. He was doing well, with the house, the family. I was nowhere. I thought of ways I could get beer and pills, but nothing was clear in my mind. I was going to have to follow the rules and stay sober, unless my parents would buy me cough medicine. I had to stop myself. I wasn’t even there yet, and I was mentally manipulating my parents into getting me high. I was just out of prison and I was all out of whack.

The miles and rocky mountain walls ran by. I looked for cops. I saw Chamberlain was doing just five miles over the speed limit and hundreds of people were passing us each hour. I didn’t want to get pulled over, have “police contact” (reportable to parole) or get tossed in jail for some reason. I was intoxicated, just not with anything illegal.

It was nearing 6 p.m. when we crossed the line into Florida. When my parents told me about this trip, I remember thinking I’d be screaming and dancing as we eased into Florida, but I was cough medicine cool, just groovin’ and going with it. “Well, you’re here,” was what he said. I offered a quiet, “Thank you.” It was two and a half hours and we were in Greenville Hills, a community of houses that looked nearly all the same. It was about dusk and a red brick house came into view, number 3008.

The truck rolled to a stop in their small driveway, the front door opened and there were two 70-year-old people I didn’t recognize, coming onto the porch. There were smiles all around and “Hellos.” My father was most recognizable, healthy, fit and tan. My mother was tiny—she must have lost eighty pounds since I saw her nineteen months ago.

I hugged both of them but felt a powerful loss. Those crazy hippies I knew, the 70s, 80s, 90s, it was all gone, over. They were officially senior citizens. In my mind, their time in the “cool” zone had passed them by, as it does with everyone. My mother looked ill—and I was in for a big surprise.

B.E. and I were welcomed inside and flopped ourselves down in reading chairs. Dad gave me the rundown of what happened on the phone with the prison, and he did threaten to call Warden Justin J. Thom to complain about the Infirmary not doing its job and blaming me. Chamberlain updated the folks about the trip, goings-on at his home, and that he had to go. He had to be in another state tonight, staying in a hotel room, working early.

Buzzing and fuzzy feeling, I couldn’t stop staring at the two of them. I guess mostly I saw them in the 80s, in photos, out having drinks with friends. Now they were talking to me about this “new neighborhood.” A new state. A cancer diagnosis for my mother.

They were them but not them. I was home but not home. It was going to be a long time until I found that home I knew. Maybe forever.


Leo Mason



Leo Mason is a biographer and documentarian. He is currently at work on a project addressing criminal justice and prison reform.


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