Excerpt from Sweet Tea Existentialism: Pedaling The Backwoods Bayous and Rebel Roads Of The South

Frankie Says Relax
By Joe Kurmaskie

Excerpt from Sweet Tea Existentialism: Pedaling The Backwoods Bayous and Rebel Roads Of The South

By the Spring of 1985 I’d become a cartoon character. This was painfully clear to everyone but me.

The damning evidence:


1. A foreign sports car complete with racing stripes I had to fold myself into. It featured a useless spoiler on the trunk and took 40 percent of my income to own and operate. This explains why it remained parked, on average, two weeks of every month.

images-42. A thick gold neck chain, presumably obtained during a nighttime jewelry store robbery in which the thieves closed their eyes and pawed at stuff, a bad pawn trade, or taken off the body of a retired Jersey hit man. I wore it in and out of the vehicle, in any weather. It was a curious time in my life, one that saw me abandoning my rock roots and punk anthems in favor of one word bands; Wham, Aha and Alphaville.


3. Parachute pants, loafers without socks, humming Phil Collins tracks in the shower, an extensive collection of tanning oils, which, I shit you not, I wore on a Leatherman’s tool belt and put to use around the pool of my singles apartment – a place which took the remainder of my income. 

90382417_xs4. A thick, wide, sweat stained weightlifting belt, never out of arm’s reach, and more often left on but loosened between workouts. In size it rivaled those awarded to heavyweight champs, a necessity for my thrice daily workouts. It could be argued that amount of weight lifting robbed my brain of oxygen, common sense, fashion sense or any sense of proportion by pumping nearly all the blood directly to my muscles. It would clear up how I managed to construct a body best suited for the gravity of Jupiter, hold down two jobs and attend college, but avoided a single moment of self-awareness.

e713073f9682b4b9cec1e659bb216c255. My favorite movie that year was Scarface. I overused the phrase, “Say hello to my little friend!” until it was both meaningless AND incredibly annoying. I believed it charming and frisky. Opening the pizza box, “Say hello to my little friend.”  Someone inadvertently opening my bathroom door, “Say hello to…”

In my defense; Tampa, Florida.

If you’re waiting for me to expand or clarify that last statement, I won’t. Spend a few weeks there and get back to me.

It was the bicycle that saved me, and not for the last time.

How did I acquire my two wheeled savior for use during car rationing weeks – when I’d forsaken cycling, vowing to put away childish things at the curb of the car lot? The bicycle (I’m told I could be spotted riding it through campus on Spring mornings, shirtless, thick chain bedazzled, singing Madonna’s Holiday as I went – I have no memory of this, but don’t doubt its veracity) became mine because one of my roommates went to prison.137516-137692

We’d been calling him No Brow Charlie for months by the time the SWAT unit surrounded our off campus apartment complex at 3am. Seems No Brow Charlie, a pre-med student working part-time at the Lions Eye Bank had fallen in with a crime ring stealing eyeballs and smuggling them to buyers in Saudi Arabia. It was all in the papers after the fact, but our neighbor and fellow gym rat, Kentucky Greg picked up on it first.

“Something’s seriously wrong with that dude,” he said. We were walking by as Charlie, sprawled across the couch, snored and pulled out his eyebrows.

Most afternoons No Brow Charlie would drift off to Judge Judy, and before opening statements his left hand would crawl up to his face and begin pulling. Over the course of a semester coinciding with his participation in the eyeball smuggling scam, he went from a man with adequate brows to a modern day Icarus who’d ventured too close to the coals during the lighting of the apartment’s BBQ grill. Of course none of us mentioned this mutilation of his face to his face. We simply handed him a nickname behind his back and moved on; standard college boy mob asshole behavior.

When we were bored or broke, we’d bring folks in and encourage them to gawk and giggle at the afternoon freak show sleeping through televised freak shows. We thought that the sexy, older woman with a real job and a Jetta from 3A would be impressed by our skinny pre-med student, a spilled bowl of popcorn across his lap, snoring and pulling out his eyebrows.

This was a significant miscalculation.

She left abruptly, only to return moments later. We perked up.  I swung the door back open. “Say Hello to my little friend!”

She did not.

Instead, she hissed, “And stop inviting me to your inane Sunday night house parties. Some of us work.” Adding as she walked away, “Bunch of fools. Childish fools.”

I slept through the police raid but heard it was spectacular. The broken lock hanging by a few splintered wood shards certainly spoke of fury and greatness but a body engaged in thrice daily workouts and consuming 4,000 calories when conscious will sleep through nearly anything, even a police raid just down the hall.

We used a Kryptonite lock to secure the front door, attaching it to a rod iron chaise lounge on the breezeway. That arrangement, like my life at the time, couldn’t hold for long. My days sort of spiraled out of control after that. With alarming frequency I found myself in situations ranging from the ridiculous to the down right dangerous, and still I wandered through them like a fashion impaired, swollen up boisterous observer of my own folly filled life.

All that changed the night I competed in the Mr. USF bodybuilding competition.

I’d never thought about competing. What started as a way to avoid being the thinnest kid in the class grew, literally, out of control. I had the genes for it and once the mirror showed results, narcissism and club music took over. But get on stage and flex for the crowds and cameras? Can I wear my gold chain?

We’d wrapped up the third work out of the day when some newbie at the dip rack asked me if I was Mr. USF?

images-5 I hit a few poses and the idea got trapped between my impeccable lats. Several of my biggest boosters at the gym egged me on. I forgot about it until one of them brought in a completed registration that the gym owner had already put down cash money to sponsor.  I never thought I’d go through with it, even as I dieted, and tailored my work outs, and got coaching from the owner… and selected pose down music.  I’m not denying that version of me loved the idea, but I was so obliviously living in the unexamined present that I couldn’t fathom the day ever arriving.

Something else I was oblivious to; the lyrics of the song I’d selected as my posing soundtrack. How was I to know Frank Goes To Hollywood were the gay Beatles of Europe, and that Relax was a bathhouse anthem. I just liked the beat for posing and the way I could go from a back lat flare to front double biceps, then into the archer flex and point pose (made famous by Arnold) all in the span of the line:


Live those dreams

Scheme those schemes

Got to hit me

Hit me

Hit me with those laser beams!

And so it came to pass that I was greased up backstage of a university lecture hall in a pastel blue speedo, Kentucky Greg by my side, moments away from flexing to said bathhouse anthem, realizing a better song selection might have been Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime.

And you may find yourself

Living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself

In another part of the world

And you may find yourself

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

“These boys seem angry to me,” noted Kentucky Greg.

Looking around backstage there were a lot of constipated faces, clenching and glaring between push ups accompanied by barks and grunts and general menace. I would learn this is to be expected on steroids. I was not on steroids. And while I had lost much of myself in that first year after high school I maintained my generally joyful enthusiasm for life, and an esprit de corps for my fellow travelers encountered along the way. Which is why it hurt, slap in the face when you don’t see it coming hurt, when I asked to borrow one of the curl bars for a few sets only to be told to take my Dolph Lundgren looking ass and fuck off back to Norway.

Norway?  I think he’s Russian?!


That’s when my ears popped and I could hear myself again, really hear myself, for the first time in ages.

I know how it feels to come to one’s senses months after joining a cult and helping build the compound.

Kentucky Greg could see something was amiss.

“Don’t go letting this these boys get under your skin. They’re porch hounds. You’re the dog that can hunt here.”

“No. I think I’ve made a huge mistake.” I turned away from the curtain.

“You worrying you should have worked the legs a little more?” he said. “Cause that’s bullshit. You got the symmetry.”

I shook my head, unclipped the thick gold chain and handed it to him. My name came over the PA system. Cheers erupted. Kentucky Greg spritzed me with one more sheen of baby oil for luck –  and that’s when I decided to push down everything I only just then knew to be true so I could go out and hit them, hit them with my laser beams.


It does not matter that I placed higher than 19 juiced up men to miss the podium by one spot, what matters is that before I said goodbye to that version of myself, I sent him off in style. Monday morning would find me in jeans and a Tom Petty t-shirt selling a certain piece of jewelry, and making all manner of changes in my life, but that Saturday evening I embraced the routine and the crowd so much that a shocking fact didn’t occur to me until months later. It showed itself somewhere on a backroad in North Carolina during my first bike adventure.  The front three rows of the audience were all guys, many dressed like members of Culture Club, I saw a lot of WHAM And Joy Division Ts. They cheered and yelped with abandonment and danced in the aisles to my routine. No other competitor that night got the same reception.  By the third verse the entire hall was singing the chorus as I hit my marks, but those rowdy boys up front were leading the charge with style to burn. Truth be told they put me in the finals. That night, I was a gay icon…  and completely unaware.   

Somewhere on a quiet country lane in the Smokey Mountains, decades removed, if you listen real close, you can still hear the echo of my laughter.


Picture of the author today – 30 years later. I still work out, but not for imagined greatness, rather, for health and to able celebrate more seasons of mobility and friendship with my family and friends. The muscle that needs the most exercise are our hearts – the physical ones of course but the metaphoric ones  that’s what I’m talking about – 15 reps  3 sets of kindness each day!


Marrying Up – New Book Excerpt and Special Edition Ordering Info.

Guide_to_Falling Down_front_cover (1)Excerpt from A Guide To Falling Down In Public 2016 Breakaway Books. Release Date May 11.


The world is full of frauds, corner cutters, and outright cheats, but sometimes, due to circumstances beyond your control, you just get in over your head and it’s you they’re calling out.

What did Elvis Costello once say? “It’s nobody’s fault, but we need somebody to burn.”

Look at Boston Marathon pariah, Rosie Ruiz. Here’s a woman who went from being crowned the winner of the world’s most famous race to wearing a crown of thorns and character crucifixion when just hours later it was discovered she had not crossed most of the checkpoints and took a cab for part of the race.

Open-and-shut case there right? Not so fast. Could it have been a poor sense of direction and the infamous cab-driving mafia that is Boston’s transportation-for-hire industry?

I used to think Rosie was a debased creature until I found myself on the other side of this sort of equation. Now I reserve a little place in my heart for doubt. It’s possible that the biggest cheat in Boston Marathon history was simply a victim of that city’s confusing layout and impatient, incompetent cabbies. By the time the driver dropped a frustrated Rosie at what she thought was the start, she was only a few miles from the finish. Only Rosie knows for certain.

But I can tell you the unvarnished truth and lay out the facts about the time I became the Rosie Ruiz of the Seattle to Portland ride, aka STP. It was a five-mountain morning when I brought out our bike train to make the 2.5-mile pedal to the finish-line party in Cathedral Park. A five-mountain day in the Pacific Northwest is one so clear and bright that it affords a panoramic view of tips and tops of five mountains at once . . . across two states and hundreds of miles.



We were coming off our own high as the lead-out bike float and honorary marshals of the Mississippi Avenue Independence Day parade. Our bike touring train was still awash in confetti, roman candles, colorful streamers, and neon pool noodles. red, white, and blue pinwheels spun from the handlebars of the trail-a-bike, and the Chariot bike carrier was pimped out in strips of colorful fabrics com- plete with a sound system featuring Grand Funk Railroad and KC and the Sunshine Band. I jammed three hundred pounds of books in the rig. A sandwich-board-sized poster of one of my book covers stuck out the back end of the Chariot like a JUST MARRIED! sign.

I handed out Risky Business–style Ray-Bans all round. Pushing the sunglasses up the bridge of my nose, I channeled the ghost of Belushi and that playful outlaw spirit of the Blues Brothers for a few moments.

“We’re on a mission, boys. I don’t know who it’s for, but we’re on one!”

I pushed off. We coasted that ramshackle rolling carnival along the bluff with little to no effort. There was talk about taking a longer route, adding a hill or an incline, anything to break a sweat, but I was scheduled to perform at noon so the real exercise would have to wait. Even meandering our way to the party, stopping to see if I could get the sound system working long enough to groove out to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” it didn’t take us ten minutes before we could hear the finish-line festivities.


I shifted down for the first time that day and upped my effort to clear the little rise. The rest of it would be a screaming descent to the riverfront park.

And that’s when it happened. Our bike train was joined by waves of riders who had just pedaled their rigs two hundred miles from Seattle, Washington. People who deserved the cheers, hoots, and applause of family and friends lining the end of the route. Like a salmon fighting against the current, I made one attempt to go against the flow and get out of this sea of cyclists. I did not want it to look like I was part of the ride, that I was muscling three hundred pounds of bike train across the finish line in front of most of them.

But it was no use. We were caught in the slipstream. And nothing about us was low-profile.

Riders to our left and right actually gasped when taking in the length and breadth of my burdens. They made room, hollering out statements of respect and appreciation for what I had not accomplished. Some rang bells; many hooted uncontrollably.

“Dad of the year, right there!”
Smiling, I shook my head and tried to wave them off. This show of humility had the opposite effect.

“Jeez . . . there’s a second kid on board!”
“Dave, get a load of this!”
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Way to go, man . . . legs of steel!”
Mind you, we had crossed the length of America the previous summer on this same setup. Seattle to Portland is a mere two hundred miles, whereas me and my boys had rolled it over the rockies, crossing the continental divide six times, managed the roller-coaster- like hills of the Ozarks, taken on the inclines of coal country to the east, and pedaled all the way up to the Lincoln Memorial.

For a few seconds I was conflicted.

Wait, none of that mattered. We hadn’t even broken a sweat today. This was all wrong, but before I could end the charade the high school drum corps drowned me out, that and concert-sized speakers blasting, I shit you not, the Chariots of Fire theme song.

As we crested the hill people were high-fiving my sons from the sides of the road. Cameras flashed; a group of riders formed a sort of wedge in front of us so the gap created between us and them formed a focal point with our technicolor float at its center.

Moms held up babies, people put their hands to their hearts, veterans saluted, and family members looked beyond their deserving relatives to get a better look at this spectacle of athleticism and heart. And off to the side I thought I saw the one Native American, familiar to us from the 1970s anti-pollution commercials, a lone tear running down his face as we passed.

The drums, the theme music, kids running alongside us. I tried to make myself as small as possible. But now something was happening behind me that kicked the crowds into another gear. They cheered in the manner one would a rock concert encore.

I turn to find that Quinn has produced a plastic lightsaber and is balancing on his bike seat, waving it at the hordes. Not to be outdone, six-year-old enzo, who’d learned how to detach himself from the five-point safety harness system somewhere across Missouri, has thrown open the Chariot carrier flap and is standing with one hand holding the roll bar, waving with the other. He’s turned that Chariot trailer into a Popemobile. And though she’s been dead for years, Enzo has his Princess Di wave down cold.

“Down, boys, down!” I whisper-yell. But it’s too late. As we bring the whole catastrophe in for a landing, we’re mobbed by well-wishers. It’s like a Mexican border town, children trying to sell us Chiclets and dried flowers. The drums build, the theme song crescendos, someone is blowing one of those vuvuzelas you only hear at world Cup matches. Still, I decide I can weather this heat-of-the-moment, caught-in-the-flood crazy misunderstanding, until the ride director comes through the crowd carrying medals.

At this, I hang my head. The only way I can avoid a medal ceremony is to hop off the bike and beat him to the punch. I come in for a big bear hug. In a panic, I offer him some Italian air kisses before whispering, not unkindly, into his left ear, “We have not just pedaled from Seattle to Portland today on that bike.”

With this he holds me at arm’s length, shaking a little, looking me in the eye, before saying with a proud, booming voice. “It’s okay if it took you two days!”

If I’ve learned anything in this world, it’s that if you present a mob, angry or jubilant, with the truth or the show . . . they’re gonna take the show every time!

The crowd goes wild! I do manage to avoid the medal but that’s only because Quinn, proudest SOB on the planet at that moment, presented his chest for the director. You know what that kid was thinking: It’s about damn time! I spend a healthy chunk of my childhood pedaling around this fine country with my father, rescuing damsels, slaying dragons, and battling dark sides of the Force from a bike, and finally you see fit to throw me a parade and put a medal on me. What took you so long?

 10398616_67934739871_6780152_nQuinn stands balancing on his bike seat, arms to heaven in a Ray-Ban, lightsaber victory pose, before executing a graceful dismount. Enzo manages to get the boom box working again, they pose for pictures, mini Blues Brothers with their questionable medals while Parliament’s “We Need The Funk” causes a little dance party to break out.

At least the lie is contained to a few thousand cycling friends. I manage to roll the bike train behind the stage and try to center myself for my show. Put the whole incident behind me and get right with myself. I’ve been hired to entertain the Lycra troops with stories from the road and inspire them with my accomplishments on bike.

“Boys, could we not wear our medals on stage?”

And that’s when the imageswhole thing goes supernova. What I hoped would die a quick death has been picked up by Kelley Day of Fox News. She’s with her cameraman hunting for a solid soundbite story before deadline, she knows me from other studio appearances, and she must have heard about our entrance.

“It’s the Metal Cowboy . . . and his little boys!” She points where she wants the cameraman to stand. “Hoist one of ’em up on your shoulders, Joe. This will only take a minute. In three, two, one . . .”

I would love to tell you that when that little camera light went from red to green, I found the character and courage to set the record straight, that I felt shame and a measure of guilt and confessed my sins to the tristate viewing audience. Instead, I channeled my inner Bill Clinton, felt a blanket of calm and peace wash over me. I knew what is, was, and always would be. I felt in control.

Kelley nailed it on the first take. The cameraman worked his lens slowly across the length of the bike train to settle on us—Enzo at my hip and Quinn on my shoulder holding that medal up for the camera—while Kelley asked, “Cowboy, how does it feel to have pulled all this . . . precious cargo, all that way?”

 I imagined the piece airing with graphics showing our route and the ticker tape scrolling, “Dad pedals hundreds of pounds of bike, boys, and books from Seattle to Portland.”

What I said next, while technically not a lie . . .

I took my time, gave Kelley a confident, warm, road-weary smile, I may have even winked at the camera, I know I gave a nod, and in a voice that had more than a little Bill Clinton hospitality twang to it, I said,

“I’ll tell you, Kelley, it feels like I just left my doorstep ten minutes ago.”

Another ring in Hell may have to be added for me, but you can’t throw that sweet changeup at me and think I’m not going to swing. Back home, I decided to use the events of the day as a teaching mo- ment. I put on warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” got out the dictionary, and called Quinn into the study.

We looked up the word fraud together. He got it. “Like playing make-believe.”

“Yes, you could say that, but when adults do it they have two career choices. Making license plates at the local prison, or presidential candidate.”

He went to bed in his medal, so here’s hoping it sinks in over time. I relaxed, but that didn’t last. I realized with a sick certainty that the evening news was about to come on and the only real jury of my peers who mattered, my wife Beth, was upstairs within reach of a tv remote. I put more effort into the run up two flights of stairs than the whole day of cycling.

bethboyzGod love her, when I arrived in our bedroom she was reading a book the size of War and Peace and the tv was off. I slid across the comforter, palmed the remote, jammed it under the mattress, and marveled, not for the first time, that I had wed so, so far above my station.


Preorder a signed, numbered, limited edition of the new book here:

Thanksgiving As A Verb

While cycling through a sliver of five countries in Africa, I happened upon a mobile flea market/art fest.

51HArTIk9uL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The cars and makeshift cargo bikes and pushcarts formed a wagon train circle brimming with handmade crafts and folk art and recycled wares that could all be closed up and rolled on at a moment’s notice.

Khumbu stood at least 6 ft 3 or 4, but his laugh made him taller. I took a shine to his work and he could tell. When I pedaled back around a third time he said, “You coming in for a landing or more circling?”

The clothe these were painted on… mismatched sizes, draped from the tailgate of a VW van older than me –  and carrying the man’s worldly possessions was my guess. When I asked how much for the bike shack, he grinned, then actually reached out and tossled my hair the way Bill Murray did Glida Radner on SNL, stepped  back, drank something out of a flask I had not noticed until then, offered me a swig, when I waved it off, he threw out a ridiculously low price. I countered with four times his asking price and said I would like the one of his van as well, if he’d part with it.  He looked at me for what felt like a long time, like the first time. Still smiling, he asked,

“You’re so money, then?”

For a second I could see my white privilege on full display. I’d just announced, to the entire market really, that I didn’t need to bargain. In fact, I would pay above asking price. I felt like I’d farted in church…. the embodiment of A Bull In A Pushcart China Shop.

I lowered my voice a notch to outdoor level and pointed at my bike. “I’m American so of course I’m loud and graceless and act like I’m money… but among my people, I’m the opposite of money.”

It was silent for too long. Then Khumbu was joined by his friend one pushcart over, and without missing a beat they proceeded to do the “Baby, you are so money!” scene word for word from the film, Swingers. At this point, relieved but suffering serious cultural vertigo, I closed it out with a solid, “Vegas, Baby, Vegas!”

Laughter and nodding all around. Khumbu made a place for me on the bumper. We chatted for the next 20 minutes. He ask me if I wasn’t money, then who was I? I explained about my travels and my writing and the charity bike ride I was embarking on for Children In The Wilderness, and the cover story for Bicycling Magazine. We bonded over the creative arts. Photo on 11-25-15 at 8.23 AM

In the end, Khumbu got me to drink from that flask, and as I choked down the liquor he said, not unkindly. “So we are the same, except you have the world.”

I told him I would try to get my publishers to use his artwork on the cover of the anniversary edition of my first book. I asked him if that would be OK and where we could send payment if it happened. He explained that most of them were artists exiled by Mugabe and on the run. Some had family running with, but his, a son and a wife, were back in Zimbabwe. “It’s no good running or staying, but I had to run.”

Only a few minutes earlier I’d been romanticizing the idea of a life in the traveling arts and crafts mercado. In those moments, I know that I know next to nothing about the nature of suffering.

“It is a lovely thought,” he said. “But I have no address.” He patted his van.

I paid my price for the artwork. He tossled my head one more time.

“But I do have an email, and Yumbo, he has Paypal.”

When the money was sent, I put the agreed upon subject line in the email.

Subject: Nigerian Bankers Are So Money!

Khumbu’s idea.

If anyone wants signed copies of any of my books this holiday season just email me at mtcowboy@teleport.com or message me on FB for pricing and shipping info. A portion of the proceeds goes to help send kids to our summer bike camps.