Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Dispatch From Escalatorville: Car Talk

This weekends Dispatch is a volume from the "Rerun til the New One" series. I'm working on a brand new story for ya, but it needs another day or two to steep. In the meantime, I'd like to present a couple older stories from the road...
Pull Up If I Pull Up
I believe I may have mentioned my good friend Dave to you at some point in the past. I bring this up because Dave plays a key role in the following tale. However, as my memory fades with age (and, being self-centered as I am means I am apt to dis-include any element of a story that doesn't directly pertain to ME) - I have invited Dave to corroborate and fill-in some details.

Dave and I used to have a band, called Powhite Trash. We pronounced it "Pow-Hite" as an inside joke that only residents of Richmond, Virginia might get. A fact that, I realize, makes even less sense to my current international readership, but there you go.

The two of us, as a band, decided to work on/record some tunes up at a cabin that Dave's folk owned about 90 miles north of Richmond. For the trip Dave offered to drive, and his family had a choice of vehicles.
Dave: My parents had such a crazy assemblage of cars, didn't they? At that time, there were seven of them (there are now just a scant four, and only one of those original seven is also in the four). The stable included:
-a shit-brown Audi which was sold to my mom by some Russian mob-types for cold hard cash
-a 1965 VW Karman-Ghia
(which, in high school, could occasionally squeeze my lanky frame into the back seat -albeit painfully - for a trip to Kings Dominion, or a ride home from Richmond Community High School - Z.)
-a mid-80s Honda Civic (very depressing to think that this car got 45 MPG even then)
-a 1969 Cutlass Olds with absurdly little rust for its age
-a mid-80s Buick Century with very bad steering problems
-an indestructible Datsun (before they became Nissan) 1981 hatchback that managed 195K miles before it was sold to a very happy woman for $100 in 1991.
But you came here to hear about the Impala. The army-green, widest-car-ever, 356cc engine block 1976 Chevrolet Impala, with its truly awful/incredible 9 MPG city, 15 MPG hwy (yes, rilly).
Now, Dave thinks this story takes place in the Winter, while I believe it was Spring. Nonetheless, due to either a dousing of rain or a semi-frost, the roads were slick - and the earth was muddy. We took no notice of this on the way to the cabin, but after a few hours of Rockin' Out - we needed a break, so we hopped back in the Impala.
Dave: The feeling of driving a 1976 Impala is the feeling of
driving a boat, truly. The seats are so sproingy that you glide around
on a surface of hovercraft-like cushion. And because of the severe weight of the
car, they had to equip it with the most responsive power steering I have ever seen anywhere. Turn the wheel a degree, and the tires moved 10-15 degrees, it seemed. God help you if the power steering failed. (Yes, at some point this did
happen to me, and I will tell you that wrestling a kangaroo to the ground would be easier than changing lanes.)
We managed to find, as I recall, a Chinese place called (no lie) Fuking Gourmet. I don't recall the food, but I do recall being fairly glad we found it, since we were running out of places to look for food, and we'd nearly died five minutes earlier.
Ah yes, those of you waiting for the story to get interesting have arrived at your destination (and I'm not strictly speaking of the Fuking Gourmet). I refer to the 'near-death' part - oh, had we not mentioned that yet? As I'm pretty certain that it was Dave's driving that keeps this as a "near" death experience, I'll allow him to continue -
Dave: Well, the road back out to Route 17 is still very narrow, not designed for vehicles traveling more than 45 miles an hour. Of course, this means that locals travel a bit faster than that, on the average, which tends not to be a problem until you actually meet someone or something going the other direction. In those days, you had only a scant probability of that happening.
But you wanted to hear about the dump truck. We were headed north on the road, back to Route 17, so that we could head south (Yeah, that makes no sense, but that's how you had to get back to the interstate). That truck was headed back toward our little street in one of the turns where there is a pretty
good hill. We were going a normalish speed of maybe 45 when this truck came over the crest, going at a similar pace. So - two vehicles maxing out the safe, both very wide characters.

The Impala just fits in the lane, and a dump truck only
fits if you take a kind of "tennis approach" whereby "fitting in the
lane" includes being on the center line. It does NOT help matters when said truck
decides to travel the turn without regard to lanes at all, making the generally-safe assumption that you can drive half in the other lane. That would be MY lane.

With nowhere to go, we went off the shoulder. Now, this would be
messy anyway, but the particular spot we went off the shoulder was a steep drop from pavement to grass. That would only have been concern for the paint job and
suspension if it had not been for the fact of the ditch.
The "ditch" he says. The Impala had stopped, certainly, we were unhurt and safe, I assumed (I'll state this for the record - as this was a pre-airbag vehicle, it is a credit to Dave's driving/swerving skills that we had no bruises or abrasions - there were many occasions in our youth wherein Dave saved my neck in different respects, but none so literal as this day). It was then we looked straight out the windshield and into what Dave calls a ditch. I would call it a massive ravine.
Reverse. The one gear we desperately needed was the one that didn't want to work. I feared that if we spun the wheels backward too much, that we'd alter the cars center of gravity and send the Impala -and us- over the edge. Slowly, carefully, we scrambled out of the vehicle. Once we were a couple yards away, and calmed down slightly, we realized that the situation itself was sticky, but not as dangerous as the view from the Impala's front seat would imply. Treacherous, definitely, but only slightly life threatening.
"Y'all all right over there?" we heard from the road.
Momentarily, we'd all but forgotten the dump truck. Forgotten that, indeed, there was someone else on this lonesome road - and as we turned toward the pavement we saw him.
Walking towards us was a massive chunk of a man - about 6'4'' or so with the darkest five-o'clock shadow I've ever seen in the mid-day sun. He wore a grubby green jacket, with a tattered ball-cap, and hair to match.
"Y'all wait here 'bout 20 minutes, I'll go dump my load, come back, and use my chains to pull y'all out."
A nice and kindly gesture, from the man who had just nearly killed us - and one that I almost didn't hear. Sure, we were still a bit shaken up from the accident, but I couldn't concentrate because I was staring at this man's face. His words were coming from a mouth so mangled that he resembled, to me, a horror film antagonist.
I mean no disrespect to our new acquaintance, however, his face was shocking. His mouth, you see, was disfigured. It looked as if his lips had been ripped or bitten off, in pieces - and then badly rearranged and sewn back on. That description is as accurate as I can get, it could have been worse for all I know, but this is the one detail of that day that has consistently stuck in my brain these many years. He was kind enough, but extremely frightening at the same time.
I didn't have much time to process that at the site of the accident, as he was soon off to dump his load. So, by the road Dave and I sat, waiting to be rescued by our tormentor.
The entire time I wondered if maybe the accident was just the beginning of our troubles. Perhaps he wouldn't come back after all - and we'd be stuck for hours in the mud. Or worse, perhaps he would come back, and then kill or kidnap us as he was "helping" to pull the Impala back to the road. Perhaps, I was right about the lips - maybe those weren't his lips at all, maybe they were the cobbled together lip parts of his many victims - and maybe we were next.
As the truck made it's slow return down the road back to us, I silently shuddered at the thought.
I was also totally and completely wrong.
I can now assume that the driver was as shocked as we were in those moments after the incident - and that his initial terse commentary was simply his gut reaction to offer a fix to a situation he had helped to cause. Within minutes of seeing his truck heading toward us again, we had helped attach the hook and chains from his truck to the car, and managed to yank the Impala from its perch above the ravine. In a few more minutes, we had gotten back on the road, and were headed for food (although, had I been the man then that I am today, Chinese food would not have been the first thing I inhaled after the incident).
I never caught the truckers name, and neither did Dave. I would like to thank him, if he's still around, for helping us out of what could have been a long, long day slogging through mud and calling tow companies who might be willing to donate their services to two out of work musicians.

So, if you happen to be in northern Virginia, and run into our monstrous, malformed Savior - please give him my regards, but make sure your running shoes are tied, just in case

Me, Myself, and I-95 (Volume 1)
In my 24th year, I purchased my very first car. I bought it mainly out of convenience, and for a fairly lengthy Christmastime road trip that I would be taking a couple months after its purchase. However, if this experience wasn't humorously anomalous, I probably wouldn't be telling it. The tale of my first owned vehicle - and it's brief history in my universe - is one that left me weary and wary of vehicle ownership. In the 15 years since the advent of this story, my history of travel has improved a bit, yet to this day - each adventure arrives with a hint of trepidation.

At the time of this tale, I was employed by a local museum - where a co-worker hipped me to his friend the mechanic, who happened to be letting go of a car. After a couple meetings with said "friend," I checked out the car and test drove it. $1300 later, it was mine.

The 1983 Honda Accord Hatchback was imported from Japan - as Honda's production facility in Ohio wasn't running at 100% capacity yet. It featured a four-speed automatic transmission, as opposed to the three-speed which had been standard until then. What it did not include was an Idiot Trigger -a fictional light/sound device I just made up that would begin to glow/buzz with increasing frequency as one begins making bad automotive decisions. 'Coulda used one of those.

A month to go before the trip, I began to get the car updated, upgraded, and generally combed over by a fix-it shop in my neighborhood. I took it in for an overall inspection and to see if there were any other peccadilloes that I may have overlooked.

After having the car in the shop for a couple days, I called to check on it's progress. Like every decent automotive inspector/repairman would, they had found quite a few things that needed to get fixed. I asked;

"What would be the best things to do for the car?"

Then the mechanic said (and this is an exact quote, folks):

"The best thing you could do for this car is to drive it into the river and then piss on it."

Instead of taking him up on this advice (which, in retrospect, would probably have been more entertaining), I authorized his team to make the repairs necessary. All tolled, the amount I spent on fixes and repairs for this vehicle in the first two and a half months of ownership equaled the amount I had paid for the car in the first place, $1300.

In the meantime, the guy whom sold me the car had split town with his girlfriend, and left no forwarding address.

Again, where was that Idiot Trigger?

After depleting the bank account for repairs, the day of the trip came into focus. I had been lucky enough to attend the wedding of two good friends a few days earlier, and the night before my journey, I joined them for dinner along with some other close friends of the bride and groom.

We finished our meals, then said our goodbyes around 10PM. I drove home, took a quick nap, and made preparations to leave. I gassed up the Honda at around 3AM, and headed off for the adventure.

Driving from St. Augustine to Richmond isn't really that difficult. You simply turn onto Interstate 95, drive north for about ten hours, then turn off interstate 95. Simple. I thought I might make it home in time for lunch.

The first trip to the filling station went fine, I even checked all the cars fluids just to be safe. "Hunky Dory," I thought, and I was on my way again.

My plan to head out early worked, I was making great time, as there was almost no traffic. Then, about 730AM - the car made a sound. A discomforting sound. A sound which resembled a coughing competition between a room of octogenarian smokers and a German Shepherd.

As we are taught in Drivers Ed, I did what anyone in this position should rightly do: I cursed. Loudly.

Next, I noticed the smoke. Pouring out from under the hood, thick and Grey - puffing up into my face to laugh at me for buying the joke of a car from whence it came. I managed to pull over safely to the side of the road and let the car come to a complete stop.

Then I cursed some more.

Moments later, as I paced beside the billowing, belching vehicle, I tried to put ideas together in my head as to how this situation could be resolved (hopefully, before lunch). Still fairly early, the traffic wasn't heavy - but there were a few rubberneckers straining to see where the plumes of smoke were escaping from - yet no one willing to stop and help.

That is, until an odd little camper van type vehicle slowed down, and pulled up behind the Accord. A man and his young son emerged, carrying two bottles full of water. As they approached, I recognized them. The day before, they had been visitors to the museum at which I worked. Austrian, I remembered, as we had had a bit of language difficulty at the ticket counter.

The man spoke very little. His son spoke less. The man offered water to cool things off, and I opened the hood to spill the H2O in whatever way would have been the most helpful. Alas, the water, though a very polite gesture, didn't cure anything.

The man and son went back to their camper van after indicating to me that they would try to alert any police or sheriff that might be patrolling. They hopped back in their vehicle and puttered off, vanishing like ghosts into the off-ramps and exits that laid before us on the highway.

10 minutes later, a proud member of the South Carolina Sheriff's department stood at the side of my car. This being the days before everyone was was constantly telephonic, the officer indicated the pay phone was available one exit away. Looking toward an upcoming highway mile marker - I was just outside the towns of Turbeville and Florence, South Carolina - about half way through my journey home.

The officer offered to drive up to the next exit for me, as he knew of the only garage open in town on Saturday morning. Desperate and thankful, (although in retrospect, this seemed like sketchy behavior on behalf of the cop - didn't it?) I watched the officer drive off - and return 15 minutes later, tow truck close behind.

Apparently the only garage in town open on a Saturday morning was, as it turns out, a one truck establishment which I can only remember as being named something similar to "Old Man and Sons." It was run by one Old Man, a very nice but tired and quickly aging gent; and his two sons, both in their mid-30s, still acting as though they were in their mid-teens - the type of fellows who only string together a sentence or two at a time, half of which are sex or fart jokes..

We all piled into the cab of the tow truck and drove my sorrowful vehicle back to their garage. Now when I say "garage" here, what I'm actually talking about is the barn located behind their double-wide trailer - in the suburbs of Outskirt Village. I sat on a doorstep made from a railroad tie, in front of an AstroTurf welcome mat, while the Old Man inspected the damage.

After a few moments, the Old Man's wife (herewith called "Old Lady") came out and asked me if I wanted some water or to use the phone. Both please, I requested, and I was let into the house to make a collect call, letting my folks know what was going on at this point, and also to let them know that they would be expecting more collect calls from me throughout the day.

In the mean time, the Old Man had inspected the car - and determined the damage. A split engine block, cracked head gasket - major damage. That car would not be running again that day. After he made numerous phone calls to parts reps/dealers/service centers, etc - the man came back with a few answers. It would take at least 7 days to get everything - and the cost, you guessed it: $1300.

I took this as an omen, and really wanted to get to something that resembled "home" at this point in time - so I struck up a deal with the man. Take me to the nearest airport, let me get back to Virginia. Then, I would call him within two days - if I wanted him to fix the vehicle, I'd figure out how to get the money to him, and pick it up on my way back through. Or, I would mail him the cars title, allowing him to do with the car as he pleased, with a promise to send me a bit of the profits should he see an monetary benefit.

He agreed, and then offered his sons services in escorting me to the Florence airport, 40 miles away- via their own pickup truck.
"Thank you," I said, and started grabbing my things.

It was no problem, they replied, and it would only cost me 40 bucks!
(Strange as it is; sometimes, when your caught between a rock and a hard place - it actually helps to be kind to the rock.)

Grabbing the belated Christmas presents I had loaded the car with, I made space within my luggage and said goodbye to a favorite blanket which remained in the hatchback of the Accord (not to mention a glove box full of totally awesome cassettes, damn!).

We clambered into the cab of the brothers pickup truck, and I knew immediately that I was in for a "fun" ride. I sat in between the two brothers, and could see a couple freshly opened beer bottles sitting in the floorboards - which would be emptied and replaced by the time of our airport arrival. I glanced at the dashboard clock, it was 10 AM.

Now, I will veer off-topic here for just a moment to say this: I have always enjoyed the music of AC/DC - however, I much prefer their earlier works, as opposed to the stuff they've been cranking out since, say, the "Thunderstruck" era. That's may own personal opinion, make of it what you will.

That said, the only music these brothers had on hand, was the cassingle (yup, another "C" word from the land of the '80s) of AC/DC's "Ball Breaker" - which was played in its entirety, repeatedly, for the entire 30 minute drive. Yes - we drove the 40 miles in 30 minutes. [Just for the record, I am against this type of offensive or reckless driving. As the lovely Bess can attest, I drive like the really old people in public safety films of the post WW2 era (however, in this particular case; I felt that asking them to slow down was akin to a man faced with a firing squad asking for sunblock).]

Nonetheless, we arrived safely - and I stumbled out of the truck, head still rumbling with the sound of Angus Young's guitar.

I had asked to be taken to an airport - not because I love to fly - but I figured that's where one could rent a car. It would be cheaper, and - since I may be returning to this very town in a matter of days to retrieve my soon to be miraculously fixed vehicle, why not rent a car that I could return to this very place? A simple plan, which worked marvelously - until I got to the rental counter. I produced my ID when I was asked, only to be rebuffed by the clerk:

"We can't rent to you." the voice (whose face may or may not have been an actual blur) stated.

In my head, I went through a litany of reasons why I should be allowed to rent a car; no traffic violations, no criminal record, finances relatively secure (I had one paid-up, until that point, credit card), and was having a not great day. So why shouldn't they rent me a car?

Alas, at 24, I was told, for probably the last time, something that I have only wished I could hear more often in the intervening years: "You're Too Young."

Too young to rent a car, eh? I looked into my wallet and grabbed the credit card. I went up to the nearest ticket agent, and asked for a seat on the next, cheapest flight from Florence, South Carolina to Richmond, Virginia - a distance of 343 miles.

At approximately 1040 AM, after being awake all night, leaving a trashed car 40 miles away on a lonesome morning highway, and having to endure a ride from hell with the brothers goof-nut; I was told that I could easily make the next flight- in 7 hours.

I bought the ticket, and made the calls to folks back home, letting them know the new plan for my arrival . My Dad would meet me at the Richmond airport later that night. Everything was worked out. Now, there was time to kill.

A lot of time to kill.

The Florence, South Carolina airport is about as big as a kittens paw and had, at that time, more Christmas bows on the walls than paying customers in the halls. There were a couple of televisions, playing local news, followed by whatever the Saturday Matinee B-Movie may have been that week. There were a few benches, and I believe a food/coffee cart - which sold three magazines, 'People,' Newsweek,' and 'People En Espanol'.

I wanted out.

Coming onto the airport property, I had noticed a sign for a museum near the airport grounds. After I had stepped outside for a breath of slightly different air, I saw another sign leading from the airport parking lot .

The museum was a couple hundred yards away - I could easily walk to it, lose myself inside a museum for a while and make it back to the airport proper with plenty of time to make my flight. So, I started walking. The museum wasn't that far at all, but had plenty of advertising on the short distance along the dirt road leading from the airport to the museum. I filled my head with the many time-wasting and interesting exhibits that lay ahead, hoping I could spend at least a couple hours filling my brain with things that didn't involve expenses, cars, or any combination of the two. I got to the the museum grounds, turned a corner and headed directly toward the front door, where was posted the following:

'Closed On Saturdays'

Dejected, I turned around - and since there were no windows low enough to peak into, I started the walk back to the airport. Slowly.

I made it back in time to watch the end of the Saturday Matinee from a bench next to my departure gate. I started doing a crossword puzzle - and then must have either succumbed to the demons of slumber, or just faded into oblivion, for the next thing I knew, I was within an hour of flight time.

Excited, I was finally headed homeward. I had neglected to check the details of my ticket. I was indeed traveling toward Richmond - however, I'd be taking three separate flights.

At this point, I simply didn't care. I hate to fly, but I desperately wanted out of Florence.

I boarded the plane - a simple 60 seater, which transported 15 of us from Florence, South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia - where I had a brief layover before boarding a 24 seater which flew me to Raleigh, North Carolina - there, I boarded a 12 seater, which carried me from Raleigh to Richmond . If you want to compare mileage flown to the amount I paid for the ticket, I suppose I got a bargain.

Finally, somewhere around 11PM, I stepped into the final airport I would see for quite a while - and sat enjoying the ride as my father drove me to his house, where I knew a meal and sleep were finally going to make their appearance.

As it turns out, I chose to rid myself of the car. Upon returning to Florida, I sent Old Man & Sons the title to the Accord, and wished them well. I hold no grudge against the town of Florence, however - I do get more anxious any time I have to travel through that area. There's a strange vibe in the air, I guess, and it causes things to happen. In the years since, I've had radio stations change themselves, cars suddenly backfire, momentary gas pedal failure, but no more breakdowns. I call it the "Florence Shudder" - and sure enough, it's there nearly every time I am.

Perhaps, however, it's my old vehicle calling out to me across the woods and back roads of South Carolina - trying to draw my attention once more. I wouldn't doubt it's carcass is still there, somewhere, slowly rusting it's way to the netherworld.

Plus, it's been a decade and a half now, that Old Man hasn't sent me a dime.

Returning to new quite soon. Thanks for reading!

The Dispatch From Escalatorville
Z.F. Lively, Proprietor/Slowhand

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