One day I decided that the Mustang and I had to take the ultimate road trip. A ride along The Mother Road, the world famous Route 66.
I convinced a friend from work to go with me. Her name was Judy, so you get that friend is a euphemism. But we did work together, and if you’re going to drive across country in a small car, Judy was a great choice. Fill in the blanks from your own youth.
A week before we took off, my wallet was pinched from my office. It turned up a few hours later, minus the few bucks I had and my American Express card. No problem. Amex issued me a new card. California here I come.
On the third night, Judy and I drove through Tulsa, and we saw it. The Camelot Hotel — a faux medieval castle, complete with a turret, a massive iron gate, a moat, and a drawbridge, just sitting there on a barren stretch of Route 66.
The truth: I couldn’t afford it. The lie I told Judy: It’s too touristy. A real New Yorker would never set foot on its Oklahoma-hokey drawbridge.
We spent the night at Motel 3.
Fast forward: A few days later we made it to LA, Judy flew back to New York and promised to fly to Chicago in a week so we could meet and drive home together.
Sweet. But I stayed in LA too long, and suddenly I had 3 days to make the 2100 miles to Chicago to meet Judy on Friday night. The first night I got to Grants, New Mexico. It was November, and having driven through a snowstorm in Arizona, the ten hour drive took eighteen.
Day 2: I pushed another 700 miles, and at 9pm, there it was again. The Camelot Hotel. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I still didn’t have the money, but I had that little green card. I parked the Mustang, and I entered the lobby. Lights were low, music was playing, cocktail glasses were clinking, and I, grungy and road weary, definitely did not fit the profile of the neighborhood.
I checked in, put the room on Amex, and went upstairs. The room was hot shit. Worth every penny. I was raiding the mini bar when the phone rang.
“Hello, Mr. Karp, it’s the Front Desk. Sorry, but the carbon copies didn’t come out on your credit card voucher. We need to get another imprint.”
Back downstairs I went, gave my credit card back to the desk clerk, and without making an imprint, he turned to two men who were standing nearby and said, “that’s the guy,” and handed one of them my card.
The men, in their forties, were both wearing off-the-rack suits. One brown, one pale blue. They flashed badges. Detectives. Tulsa police. “Where did you get this American Express card?” Brown Suit said. “It’s stolen.”
“No it’s not. It’s mine. It’s got my name on it.” I turned to the desk clerk. “If you had a problem with the card, why didn’t you call me? What kind of an idiot calls the cops? I want to speak to the manager.”
“I’m the Manager-On-Duty,” the desk clerk said, backing up.
“Don’t walk away from me, you stupid son of a bitch.”
“Keep your voice down, sir,” one of the cops said.
“This is between me and the idiot desk clerk,” I yelled.
Remember that I was young and stupid, and since I didn’t do anything wrong, I figured they’d back off if I made a scene. It always worked for my mother.
The cops were pissed. People in the lobby looked away. I’m sure the headline in the paper the next morning said Loudmouth from New York Disrupts Serenity of Genteel Oklahoma Landmark Hotel.”
The cops escorted me to the faux manager’s office and shut the door. “Where did you get this American Express card that belongs to Marshall Karp?” Brown Suit asked.
“It’s my card. I’m Marshall Karp.”
“Can you prove it?”
I opened my wallet and took out the only forms of identification I had. A draft card and a driver’s license. This was long before the advent of photo ID’s, so the only information it offered up besides my name were height, weight, age, eye color, and hair color.
“Do I fit the description?” I said, letting the question hang so they could tell that I really wanted to add “you bozos.”
The cop shrugged. “You do. And so do a million other guys.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” I yelled. (Never a good way to start a sentence in the deep South.) “I have Marshall Karp’s wallet, I have Marshall Karp’s credit card, I have Marshall Karp’s Mustang parked outside with the registration in the glove compartment in his name. Who else could I be but Marshall Karp?”
“I don’t know who you are,” Brown Suit said, “but you’re using a credit card that he reported stolen.”
He handed me a pocket size handbook. It was the American Express hot card list. He pointed to a line in the book with my card number on it.
I saw the problem. “Yes,” I said. “That’s the one that was stolen. It ends in 0100. My new card ends in 0200.”
“One number off,” the cop said. “It’s probably just a typo. You’ve got a stolen card. Which means you’ve got a stolen wallet and a stolen car. Now maybe if we open the trunk of that Mustang we might find the real Marshall Karp in there.”
“I told you it’s me. What do I have to do to prove it?”
“Okay, if you’re the real Marshall Karp, what do you do for a living?”
I was an advertising copywriter at the very beginning of my career, writing ads for a Portuguese airline, a radio station in Philadelphia, and a bank in Waterbury, Connecticut. Not overly impressive. So I didn’t say I was in advertising.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“What have you written?” the cop said.
By now, I was not thinking straight. The 1500 mile drive from LA to Tulsa had taken its toll. Or maybe I hadn’t yet learned how to talk to a cop. One thing was sure — I had not yet heard Aretha Franklin sing her signature song just released that year: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
“What have I written?” I answered. “What are you? A freaking critic?”
“Cuff him,” Brown Suit said to Pale Blue. “Suspicion of murder.”
The cop pulled out his cuffs, and I went from arrogant to scared shitless. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, officers. Let’s start again. I understand the situation. Let me see if I can prove who I am.”
The cops were now in the driver’s seat. To their credit, they didn’t exchange smirks, but I bet they laughed their asses off in the car later on.
I gave them the story of when, where, and how my wallet got stolen. I described my phone call to NYPD, giving them details that only the victim reporting the crime could know. One of them called the precinct in New York.
He hung up and said, “Police officer in New York City seems to think you’re the real Marshall Karp.”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”
“You can go to your room now,” he said, giving me my card back.
“I’m not staying here,” I said. “I’m checking out.”
I raced upstairs, grabbed my bag, returned to the front desk, and handed over my key.
“No charge for the stay,” the asshole clerk said.
It was midnight. I figured I’d drive a few miles, then check into a motel. But the two cops followed me, so I just kept driving. Two hours later, I crossed the border into Missouri. Only then did the cops turn around and head back to Tulsa.
I drove till dawn. I’d gone 1100 miles since I left New Mexico the morning before. 300 miles short of Chicago, I pulled into a Holiday Inn.
Looking back, I think the boys from Tulsa did the right thing. A scruffy punk kid, driving a late model Mustang, checking into an expensive hotel, flashing what looked to be a stolen American Express card. I’d be suspicious.
Of course, these days, we’ve got photo ID’s and fingerprints and DNA and all kinds of sophisticated technology. So false arrests are practically a thing of the past. (That’s a cop joke, folks.)
Epilogue: The Camelot Hotel eventually went to seed and was condemned in 1996. The last time I looked, it was deteriorating rapidly, a blight on the city, and the city was planning to tear it down
Marshall Karp, on the other hand, is still thriving. And if I ever get stopped by a cop who asks, “What have you written?” these days I’ve got a much better answer.