ELL, first off, know that you’re playing a vital role in society. The life of a drifter is lonely, hard and trying, but when you’re lying there, sprawled across a bench at the bus station, you can take pride in knowing that you’re helping other people feel better about their choices in life. When you’re sitting in a police station accused of petty theft, understand that being a scapegoat for minor crimes is part of what makes a drifter a drifter. And when you’re drinking a cheap, watery beer in a dive somewhere and there’s a politician on the TV talking about unemployment and the plight of the uninsured, remember that he’s talking about you, or would be, if you actually were capable of holding a job and paying health-insurance premiums.
Of course, holding a job is harder than ever, and there are more people wandering aimlessly around America now than ever. This guide is designed to help first-time drifters fit in to their new roles—more than that, to behave the way that society expects drifters to act. All it takes is one novice drifter getting caught ordering a mocha cappuccino or applying hair gel for all of us to lose respect.
Despite what you may have heard, there is no such thing as the drifter “community.” By their very nature, drifters are solitary, suspicious, and skittish of most human contact. Speaking for me personally, if I were sitting in a booth in the back of a McDonald’s somewhere, and some new drifter came up to me and started talking to me about the allure of the open road and the brotherhood of all drifters, I would mumble incoherently and sidle away. You didn’t become a drifter to network with other drifters. And, remember, part of being a drifter involves cutting off relationships with your family and friends—and that includes your Facebook friends.
The drifter’s traditional musical accompaniment has always been the hum of the Greyhound wheels on the asphalt. But when that becomes monotonous, many drifters turn on their small, plastic battery-powered AM transistor radios—the more static, the better. Although portable music technology has made amazing strides in the past few years, the important thing to remember is that there just aren’t that many USB charging stations in our nation’s railyards, campgrounds, and abandoned warehouses. Leave the iPod at home.
Drifter clothing is cheap, durable, and ugly. Don’t wear anything that you wouldn’t trust to a fifty-cent Laundromat washing machine. There aren’t many things more pathetic than a hipster-turned-drifter dressed in rags because a thirty-year-old coin-operated Maytag reduced his subtly ironic T-shirt collection to shreds. Get acquainted with your local Army-Navy store and the Dumpsters behind your local Carhartt factory outlet.
There are two kinds of drifters; sullen, silent morose types, and romantic outsiders with a tragic past. If you’re the first kind of drifter, the best way to discourage those few people curious and intrusive enough to talk to you is to carry a knife. Don’t try to scare anyone. Just whittle on some random stick for a few minutes, and people will generally leave you the hell alone for as long as you want. If you’re the other kind, the best way to fake a tragic past is to tell people that you were a victim of some obscure calamity like the Armenian genocide. (You can look up the details on Wikipedia if you want.) Either that, or just tell them you’re a Detroit Lions fan—that works, too.
Society is surprisingly tolerant of even the most eccentric reading habits of drifters; most people won’t even think twice about seeing a drifter reading the Wall Street Journal as long as it doesn’t look like he’s checking out hedge-fund performance. You can read anything from Rabelais on down to James Patterson and people won’t stare at you. The only real exception is overly self-referential stuff like Kerouac and Steinbeck—that, and Into The Wild. If any veteran drifter comes across you when you’re reading Into The Wild, he’s going to laugh at you. It may be before or after he beats you senseless with a pool cue, but he is going to laugh at you.
It used to be that people got nervous when they saw a drifter scribbling in a notebook, but that has pretty much worn off. If they think anything of it, they will just assume that you used to be a newspaper reporter and move on.
Obviously, this doesn’t cover every aspect of drifter culture—food, for example. (You’ll want to read the guide on that. It’s called So You’ve Decided to Eat Garbage.) Good luck in your wanderings, and if you ever come across a fellow drifter wearing a heavy green sweater and mumbling into his bushy black beard, well, please just leave me the hell alone. I have a knife.