Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 7)

Part 7

            Tonight, I wake up with a start.  We are in an antiseptic Motel 6 outside Barkeyville.  I remember vaguely the movie I fell asleep to:  Adam Sandler and Kevin James are pretending to be gay so that they can sidestep civic red tape that prevents the James character from naming his own two kids as his life insurance beneficiaries.  This was how the wheel of fortune decided to send me to slumberland.  But that is not why I wake up.  I awake in a cold sweat with the sudden realization of just how long we have to go.  How big the country is.
            Driving around in our hybrid Ford Escort in Salt Lake City, it was easy to think of the whole nation circumscribed by…what?  National Public Radio?  A twenty minute drive across town to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the way home, and I had this sense that I had grappled with America, toured its sites, plumbed its depths.  But now.  Lying in bed with the too-hot/too-cold unit grinding away, Cheryl’s soft snoring to my side, the TV blank, I realize, “My God.  We’re still in Pennsylvania!”
            This isn’t just a mental acknowledgement, but a fear-based one.  It is winter.  It is icy cold.  It is Pennsylvania and we have miles to go before we sleep. It is a sentiment I once wrote about for a newspaper, this airline age where we have forgotten that the distance is the same going from point A to point B.  But we have forgotten.  We have believed that we could scoot up from Dallas to Jackson Hole, WY for a skiing trip over a weekend and back to Dallas without a hitch.  Fresh cut limes in the Bloody Marys.  But the wild cards are still there. Weather hasn’t changed, just our ability to believe it isn’t a variable to what we have to do.  Where we have to go.  Mechanical malfunction?  Vulcanized rubber and its progenitors of Michelin and Firestone have “solved” that.  The FAA mandates certain foolproof measures so that at that critical point of nose up at 180+ mph our stomachs don’t turn over anymore, only the pages of our Wall Street Journals.
            Not so, I posited.  The distance is the same.  ATC delays are the Indian attacks of my pioneer ancestors.  The dried up watering holes they relied on for their oxen and horses are now weight and balances during a snowstorm at high-elevation Jackson and a short runway and too many fat Americans toting ski boots so that we have to take everyone’s luggage off and bus it to Idaho Falls for a flight out.  To be fair, in my rant, I also indicted the airline industry.  In their attempt to win customers, they make it sound like getting to Tampa from New York is as easy as crossing the street while watching a movie.  But the fact is that we fellow travelers, fat or not, are still reliant on space and time, energy and…luck to get where we’re going alive.  Or at least with the fresh limes in our Bloody Marys.
            Why is it that I forgot my own brilliant thesis when I stormed out of Logan International the night before last and into the freezing rain with little more than a credit card?
            This Pennsylvania night is scaring the shit out of me, and the debilitating enormity of our task ticks away in my head like a metronome.
In the morning, at breakfast, again at a truck stop that is starting to look like the DNA of America, the man-boy orders coffee.  This has never happened before.  He asks for honey.  I know for a fact that his father drinks his coffee with honey.  We sit at a table watered and fed by a solicitous young waitress who even styrofoams coffee for us to go.  (What would the country do without Styrofoam?)  When the waitress, juggling plates of foot, forgets to come back with the honey, he resigns himself to drinking it black, as I do.
The walls of the place are covered with letters and photos– memorabilia of local men and women who have served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is more than one poster signed by café regulars, offering condolences to families, to wives who have lost loved ones.  In one photo a helmeted soldier hardly older than our Joe, from the waist up, is grinning wildly, an ethereal landscape behind him.  Another, in full profile and stiffly shouldering his standard issue rifle, stands looking through wrap around sunglasses at the impenetrable blue sky,
            Across from us, in a booth, a couple sit facing each other over their table with coffee and the ruins of a half-eaten breakfast.  Leaning in, his soiled down vest over a flannel shirt bulges into the table edge, he is speaking to her in tones that I can’t hear.  Short, penetrating words that are making her turn away from the room, toward the wall.  She fingers a cell phone, her own bulky coat like armor, her liquid brown hair curling over the collar.  Both are in jeans, boots with laces hastily and half-tied and the air seems thick between them.  He lazers in.  She dips her head more, and runs a finger along the white edge of a plate.  The end of each of his syllables drives home with the lift of his chin.  He takes her hand.  She pulls in more, but in that way that indicates she is also drawn to him, unsure of what to do with what she thinks she desires.  Hopeless to help herself resist. It is seven in the morning during Christmas break.  A Friday.  And I can only imagine the back story.  Their separate cars outside, hers with an empty child’s car seat.  A receipt for one night in his jeans pocket, snug against his thigh.  The buttons on the phone she fingers thread immediately to her other life.  That that life is just one press-of-a-button away makes the sweet whisperings of this man through morning whiskers all the more thrilling.  Behind them on the wall is posted letterhead from the Department of Defense addressed to someone from Clinton, Pennsylvania.
            Dear Mr. and Mrs. Butler…
I carry the Styrofoam cups which our eager waitress has insured are pint-sized through the gift shop and out to the car, while Cheryl pays the bill and Joe looks at a Rolling Stone magazine.  Outside a thin skiff of snow has covered everything and the islands of gas pumps steam in the morning light.  It is taking both of my traveling partners longer than I expected.  Plus I have to pee.  I place the coffees on the trunk of the car, turning them into the snow, and head back in.  When we return, we see that they have melted through the snow and fallen to the ground, lids and cups forlornly lying in the chocolate covered snow behind the car.
“Shit,” I say.
“What were you thinking?” says Cheryl with an edge compounded by two days on the road.  Yes, she is the coffee queen—so much so that when we started dating two decades ago, I called the perpetual mug in her hand her “prop.”
            “She went to a lot of trouble for us.  What a waste!”
            I decide to remain silent this time, smart ass defensive verbal back though I am.  Admittedly.
            This time Joe, looking thoughtfully over the scene, comes to my rescue.
”It was an honest mistake, Nana.”  He pats her shoulder consolingly.  Sometimes he can seem so mature to me, this boy who has sat behind my seat in the car for the past two days and never complained.  But always, always he is kind.  Even when I took him, at age 11, three times a week to Muoy Thjai Boxing, he would sit with Dallas, a six year old terror and patiently play with  him and his Matchbox cars.  Building him up while his mother screamed at the trainer who had effectively dis-invited him from class because of Dallas’ acting out.  This boy of mine seems to know what it means to be treated unfairly.
            I scoop up the mess.  Return to the eternal truck stop where we can’t seem to escape this morning, for two more cups of java for the road.  Joe goes with me.  The fact is, my grandson does not believe at any moment of his life that he deserves anything.  Days after the fact, we will realize that he hasn’t had lunch money, that he’s just gone hungry.  Only when we find his converse top-siders torn through, tread-less on the bottom do we ask why he hasn’t told us he needed new shoes.
            “I don’t need new shoes,” he says.  And then when we press him, “They’re expensive.  I just didn’t think we could do it.”  They are expensive.  Kids are expensive.  But, in typical Dave fashion, I am first angry at him when this happens, then the Inquisitor, then sullen.  It is only in moments like this, outside Barkeyville, PA under a gunmetal sky, that I am heartsick, reminded of Exhibit A through C; F through N; X through Y.  Little stories about when he was with his mother and his father—first together then after they separated and we were still in New York.  He doesn’t feel he deserves better than whatever he’s got at that moment.  No one even has to tell him that now.  He calculates it out on his own.  Instantaneously.
“Where’s your I-pod?” I say.  Nana is driving, leaning forward and reading all the signs again out loud.  I’ve noticed in the rear-view mirror that Joe is wireless.
            “In my pocket.”  I conjecture that he forgot to re-charge it at the motel last night.  He isn’t going to volunteer that information.  Sometimes, especially with me (chronically with me), to admit a minor oversight to his Papa is to admit being flawed.  It pains me to think that this is our dynamic:  a teenager who has somehow picked up from the alpha male that he can’t even forget to do something as minor as charge his i-pod without having it reflect badly on his character.  I do the conjecturing after all (see above).  Then again, he is seventeen.  Maybe it just goes with the territory.
            I flip on the radio.  I fiddle with the knobs.  Not really sure anymore what the knobs and buttons are for on this factory-issue item.
            “You have the bass up kinda high,” he says, and I tweak it lower.  “That’s okay, “he continues.  The music has its own bass.”
            We listen to the music in our separate zones.  Then Aerosmith’s re-make of the Beatles’ “Come Together” arrives.  I had forgotten that they did that for the 1978 film “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Ironic that the film was my first real introduction to the oeuvre of the Fab Four—and it was all remakes of their songs, from Billy Preston to Elton John, designed, I suspect now, to get the disco-fed babies back up-to-speed with the “real rock and roll to me.”
            I decide to play the provocateur.
            “What the hell does any of this mean, anyway?” I ask.  I strike gold.  He leans forward, his left arm on the back of his Nana’s seat, and gives me a running exegesis on Ringo’s blues roots (“Here come ol’ flat-top”) to Lennon’s increasing drug use “bad production” and “You can feel his disease.”)
            The toe-jam football, Joe explains, has to do with barefoot soccer playing, which followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom George had become enamored, played while  worshipping at the yogi’s temple.
            Impressive!  Not the yogi, but the man-boy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, through the portal of the most heady of the them, John Lennon.
            “How do you know all this stuff?” I say, turning around to look at him in astonishment.
            “He’s reading that book,” offers Cheryl.  “He’s got a good memory, just like his folks.” She glances back at him in the mirror.  God bless her, she’s campaigning still to make sure there are admirable things about his absent parents that he can love.
            “Actually,” he confesses.  “I read it on the internet.  It’s amazing the number of acolytes the Beatles still have on there.”
            Acolytes?  Do I even know what that means?  And this is a kid whose GPA, though I admit is on the rise, hovers in the 2.5 range.
            On the radio it’s now time for more year-end review, a curious national pastime that, this year, promises to make me develop acid-reflux.  There’s mention of the Ground Zero Mosque mixed with the popularity of the TV show “Glee” and the BF Oil Spill playing off Lebron James’ insanely protracted decision to move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, stretching his 15 minutes of fame to weeks.  (More evidence from Uncle Pete that the NBA has become a league of street thugs?)  Speaking of thugs, there’s also the riveting reminder of how Jay Leno gave up his late-night gig to Conan O’Brien only to renege when in his own new show Leno started looking like he was chasing his own tail, poor bastard (he’ll never recover).  They play a clip from Conan’s gracious farewell show in which he thanks NBC, the network that in true American fashion can spin a rationale for its greed over ethics faster than you can say “Enron” or more to the point of our most recent descent into The Great Recession, “Goldman Sachs.”
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” reported Conan “…and, for seven months, I got to do it!  I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second. … I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”  Even the Will Ferrell-led Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird  couldn’t eclipse the sincerity of the lanky guy with the mop hair.  But do good guys ever really win in this world, or at best do they just get told, “hey, you played hard, but you didn’t play it right, dude?”
“If I leave here tomorrow…” the dudes sang in their crackpot way, and…I remembered that as I lay in bed next Cheryl, the glow of the screen filling the room on that late February night, they really did look like they were having a good time.  To me anyway, God bless ‘em.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 22

Part 22

Ames Monument, WY

We are on the way to Laramie, and C. wants to stop for the night, even though it’s not even the dinner hour. There is something about driving through Sherman, the highest point on I-80 at 8,262 feet above sea level that has triggered her anxiety. Maybe it is Evan’s Pass, named for the same Union Pacific surveyor who has a Cheyenne street named after him and who was killed by Indians. It doesn’t look like a pass, a canyon or a gorge—that will come later as we descend. Instead this backbone of the Laramie Mountains looks like more prairie, but starker, more arid, reached by an ascent that is hardly noticeable. The Continental Divide is still 200 miles to the west, but this summit marks the apex, literally, of the Union Pacific effort to link the country by rail. Nearby the sixty-foot Ames Monument, a stone pyramid celebrating two railroad-industry brothers that carried the name, sits dolefully, quasi-vandalized, a reminder, along with a lone cemetery, of the town’s death knell in 1918 when the railroad made the decision to relocate its tracks further south. C. wants out while I was thinking we might make it as far as Rock Springs tonight. The descent into Laramie through walls of crumbling rock and the wending of the freeway so that C. alternately grips the dashboard and the bottom of her seat, marks the way we often make decisions, she and I.

“We’ve only gone 350 miles,” I say. “Laramie to Salt Lake is a long ways to go in one day. It’s almost 400 miles, and we have to drop the car off by noon.”

“We’ll just pay for an extra day,” she says, not budging. “I need to get off the road. I need to sit in a hot tub.” What is it about hot tubs? I push her on this, aware that Derek is listening to his grandfather, a man who must appear perpetually swayed by the woman to his right. A man without balls?

I offer silence as we shoot down the canyon. My conversational weapon of choice more often that not, these days. Fact is Wyoming reminds C. of when she had cashed in all of her savings and made the decision to move out west. It was along I-80 twenty years ago that it hit her that she had made a decision that she could not reverse. She had left the East and her daughter and the family of her birth to move in with a fucked-up divorcee eleven years her junior.

“Besides,” continues C., “what’s the point in getting home early if it rattles us to death?” I wish she wouldn’t talk about herself in the plural like this. I’m going to cave to her. I can feel it. Maybe it’s her turn to malfunction. I had my meltdown last night—the storm she says she can feel moving in, brewing for miles, or hours up through the earth and into the soles of my feet, rising to my solar plexus, to me head—a storm that all she can do is wait out. Now it’s her turn to have a temper tantrum. Who will strong arm the other through attrition, grind down the other as the wind and rain continue to grind down this canyon from Cheyenne to Laramie? Or who will employ revenge—violent, sudden but hidden until the devastation can be made, well, most devastating? I am winning this one through my signature Dave Silence even while she points at the sign for the first exit at our last overnight stop on I-80 before our arrival home.

When traveling West on Interstate 80, Wyoming can seem the most dispensable of states. Something about the rock and the worn down hills pummeled non-stop by wind. The barbed wire fences. The sky that looks perpetually unkempt. The oil drills dip-dipping like crazed wood peckers. In the patchwork that is the Mountain West, Wyoming—“Forever West” as its state tagline goes–is forever vast and thus forever unarticulated. Yes, there’s Yellowstone. And the picturesque town of Jackson at the feet of the mighty Tetons. Like Colorado this state appears like the perfect square, but it’s a square that doesn’t know it’s a square. It’s never embraced it—doesn’t have a secured marketing plan. It’s the sort of place where Neil Diamond can be born, but doesn’t seem to have become an identifying mark on him. While Idaho gave us Frank Church, Wyoming gave us Dick Cheney.

Wyoming is also the place where young men can get the best education in auto mechanics, and when C. and I sit our tired bones into the hot tub that night, we get talking with a young man, fresh in from neighboring Colorado, and headed to school. What started out as an expression of interest in cars on Derek’s part, led his over-active grandparents to set him on a track: auto mechanic, the perfect relatively high-paying job for a boy who never cottoned to academics. He would go to a school like WyoTech here in Laramie—preferably for motorcycles which can pay easily an $80,000 annum. The man-boy would train for that and have a life, a good life. Right?

In the hot-tub the future WyoTech student, wiry, tattoo-ed, is only two years Derek’s senior, but he already has a girlfriend who is pregnant. Her parents have driven the two of them up from Grand Junction and will leave him here for his first term. He’s pumped about the whole thing—the narrative of his exciting, terrifying life with a kid on the way falling trippingly off his tongue. “One of the best auto tech places in world!” “Always liked engines, and cars.” “This will provide for me and my family!” He says this last part while looking at his girlfriend, lowering herself and her belly into the hot tub, her ill-fitting, faded bikini from her high school days not exactly fitting, if there is such a thing as a swimming suit that fits the pregnant. But more than looking at her when he says this, he is looking at her parents, in particular her father—a man younger than I am, but still thick with middle age—already planted in the tub next to me, his toes periodically peeking out of the surface foam. He hasn’t said a word to me. Only listened to the story that is being told. The story in which he has so much at stake. He abruptly stands to help his daughter into the suds two beats before it occurs to his future son-in-law that he should be more husbandly. Mid-sentence about the first term diesel track and the boy is leaping to his feet, but there’s really not much for him to do. Dad’s already got the girl’s arm and the boy can only stand there, his arms out like he’s spotting her, moving to her right to make sure she doesn’t fall against the side. A dragon shimmers up his left shoulder blade, mouth agape, breathing red below his neck, the skin smooth, aglow in this dim light and the acrid fumes of chlorine.

I am hoping Derek will join us here in the hot tub. I want him to witness how nesting occurs, and what his role is in all of it: education or training, work, provision for the mate that fate will choose for him… how to tell the story to keep the father-in-law at bay. But my boy is not coming over. He’s standing chest-high in the much cooler pool, hat-less finally, the fine, thick, twisted hair of his head falling forward over half of his face. Compared to the volcanic whirlpool of the tub, where he stands is like glass. And he is looking at himself in it, his head cocked down, the fair flesh of his upper arms and back exposed like marble. Having to report later to him what I heard about this “Great opportunity at WyoTech. Remember when we were talking about that? This guy seemed so excited…” will not be the same as if he were here, with me, listening and watching. Instead, he is listening and watching somewhere else, alone. And when he emerges, all the shining, troubled length of him, his hair will still be dry.

He is pining for his parents or, more likely, the concept of parents. To Derek, C. and I are only replacements for them. We are willing and ready for this. Have been now for years, despite our failing him at times. WyoTech is the answer, just like his moving in with us four years ago was the answer then. Like everything we’ve managed to throw his way—taking him on vacations, giving him kick-boxing lessons, wrangling LPs, watching Johnny Depp’s Jack Savage wobble through Pirates of the Caribbean for the 15th time; talking long and late into the night about why he sleeps with a baseball bat, and why in the middle of class he erases himself and returns only at the sound of the snapping pencil in his hands under his desk.

Next morning the light has moved in toto to the sky and it is windy. Everything earthbound feels small, unlike when we arrived last night and Laramie was a pool of light, the interstate shooting out of the canyon and sweeping around this university town in a giant parabolic arc. At the last exit before we head toward over Elk Mountain to Rock Springs, the truck stop envelopes us. I gas up the Toyota while Derek and C. head for the store for provisions. Not that we really need much, if anything. But the Pilot Plaza is one of many truck stops along the way, important touchstones, dots we are connecting as we inch our way back home. Inside, everyone’s a-buzz but in that reserved way strangers are as they edge toward each other through their tasks—some critical, others more for comfort–and the inchoate need that none of us can quite admit to or even determine. This is as good as community will get today for us—ad hoc, searching and mostly filled with a good will. A microcosm not of America but, again, of the world of how humans relate, fill the void temporarily then move on. And I am grateful for it.

Those traveling east explain the warp and woof of the way over Elk Mountain to those of us headed west. This ostensibly to the cashier but really to all in line waiting to buy their coffee and their bag of Cheetos, their latest CD of Country Western, a pack of cigarettes. At the sugar station where coffee is being mixed, someone discloses trouble at the exit near Wagonhound Road where a trailer was blown off the road last night. The Wyoming wind is out and, even though the sky is clear, drifts across Interstate 80 are making visibility virtually zero. C. listens carefully to a trucker young enough to be her son and whose flannel shirt with corduroy cuffs and collar are scuffed with grease. We’ve already headed out of town once this morning before realizing that we had forgotten to fill the tank and that one hundred miles lie between Laramie and the next sizeable settlement of Rawlins. But even in that brief interlude on the road we realize what we’re up against.

C., approachable and solicitous at the same time, is listening intently. We’ve already had the shit scared out of us as we realized that the asphalt is nothing more than a shifting dream of drifting snow. Not only is there no way to see the road but what covers it is in constant motion. We are accustomed after exactly 1,769 miles to register the road in front of us as if it were a rope we are pulling ourselves along, the rope whose constitution and even direction we would never dream of questioning. The road that will take us home. Just follow it. That is our task. But at times now we aren’t even sure that it’s even there, that we’re not driving off into the high prairie grass and the rock. And who’s to say that the truck or car ahead of us isn’t itself veering off? You can’t even follow the tail lights ahead, not if you want to be sure you’re on the yellow brick road.

The guy in flannel and the baseball cap is the size of a wall. He’s been talking about all the chains that loop underneath these rigs like clanging genitalia and how he lent half of them out, used the other half on his own eighteen wheels but is now needing more. “Two of ‘em broke and I had to pull ‘em off the wheel. Fishtailed all the way down the damn mountain. Scared the bejesus out of me. Still don’t know where some of them chains went. Sitting in the snow somewhere on the summit, I guess.”

“How do you stay on track?” asks C.. I move in so I can hear better. So do three other guys, one with an expensive hair cut and in a Gore-Tex jacket and leather gloves. “You can’t see the road. It moves,” she says with a nervous chuckle, her smile perpetually warm.

“Ma’am, you don’t look at the road. For all intents and purposes, it ain’t there. You gotta look at the road markers. They’re your life line.”

C. is persistent, tiny as she is in this coterie of fellow travelers looking for advice, or tips, for “best practices.” “But you can’t even see them sometimes,” she says. Even though we’re under florescent lighting and awash in the persistent twang of Dwight Yoakum rendering “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” ala camp, we’re like 19th Century pioneers who must have stopped and listened to every sentient being coming the other way through mountain passes and churning rivers. “It’s like they’re not there,” C. repeats for emphasis.

The young driver is thoughtful, even philosophical for a moment. “Well, ma’am, I guess you just always keep your eyes peeled for those posts and imagine you’ll see one in time, because they’re most likely there. The government put ‘em there for a good reason. Just don’t get mesmerized by the snow on the road or you’ll end up in Canada.”

Everyone in the group nods, except for C.. She doesn’t like this answer. But she trusts the messenger. I know this because she touches his sleeve before moving on.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 2)


We manage to get to Southington, Connecticut by 9 p.m., and, since this is Connecticut, there will be no cocktail or glass of wine tonight.  By law, we can’t even buy beer as it is after 8 p.m. This is not hospitality even by my Utah standards, especially for the “Microcosm of America” which Southington was apparently billed by the War Department during World War II.  Photographers, we are told, roamed this small town on the Quinnipiac River, and published their photos of busy residents at work, and in their homes and churches in a pamphlet which was then dropped by the thousands from military aircraft over Nazi-occupied Europe.  This to highlight just how bucolic and value-driven Americans were in a land that also inspired the illustrator Norman Rockwell.
We find an EconoLodge on the edge of the American Microcosm, in a neighborhood known as Milldale famous for its American Clock and Watch Museum, which we won’t be seeing.  Being without alcohol, we can nevertheless log in and tune out on the internet which the motor lodge happily provides.  So while the man-boy collapses in front of the TV upstairs, his boots tumbled to the floor at the foot of his bed, I navigate Google Maps.  I-80 stretches across the screen in blessed digital format, the yellow brick road home that in my imagination has come to represent a lifeline out of the wilderness of the East.  Oh to see a vista!  To shoot across the prairie in our little Toyota.  To be home.
We have 2,250 miles to our driveway in Salt Lake City…by car.  Thirty days and one hour if we are to walk on a carefully planned path that will take us through a section of Canada and require that we board a ferry. (“Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”)  If we prefer to bicycle it home, it will take us a mere 9 days and 2 hours if we follow the 1,341 points of direction filtered by Google and provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with the following disclaimer:
These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly. You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route.
Hell yeah, we’ll obey all signs or notices.
We decide to stick with the Toyota, despite the recent dangers, real or imagined, of sticking accelerator pedal recalls.
            Still there is some weird comfort in knowing that one can Google every configuration of how we will cross the country with the exception of going by camel. Weird because the internet is paradoxically home and an alien space craft the longer we traffic in it.  A Niagra Falls of the utterly inane and, at the same time, the utterly absorbing, so that when we leave life on the screen we are reminded—most of us are reminded—that it is virtual. Unreal.
            It is also the Great Facilitator to resisting work.  Somehow I feel as though sending an email is the same as getting work done when most of the time after clicking “send” what I’ve really done is just contributed to the debris of inner space.  Compounded by the ability to pull up whole threads of emails, one can show definitively (in a cyber kind of way) that WORK HAS BEEN DONE.  Not so.  Work has been delayed, flayed, held up under fluorescent lights as a monument to the similitude of work, of thought, of even, perhaps, real connection.  Email is where we go to avoid work or at least delay it.  It elevates TO, FROM, RE, SENT to a scream of productivity and self-importance.  Some offices, I’ve heard, have a quiet competition going on to see how long one can avoid talking to another, live person.
I have a theory:  here, at the end of the year 2010, the majority of us are so damn happy to think of ourselves as on what we use to call the “superhighway,” and no longer trying to figure out why we can’t get a dial tone on our AOL, that we are now doing what we always do.  We are digging in, making the collective groove that, as in unbridled “growth,” as in trickle down economics, as in the discovery of the wheel, for god’s sake, will eventually turn out to be a problem so acute that we are sitting around with our thumb up our ass and some long-haired pinko commie fag will have to batter us over the head for two decades to get us to wake up and smell the coffee.  As in global warming.
            My burrito rings.  It is Cheryl, upstairs.
            “Where are you?”
            I want to tell her somewhere over the news now pulsing on Comcast, our server of choice, about missile strikes inside Pakistan and how short weekly bouts of eccentric exercise may offer big health improvements, according to a story in the LA Times.
            “Still on the computer.  Google maps.  I’ll print it out and be right up.”
            The man boy and I have to wash our underwear in the sink for tomorrow.  She is probably playing good cop with him.  I am to show up, rapping on the door with my Billy club and demand that he roll his lank off the bed and away from the television showing a re-run of Rocky Balboa, which we’ve seen thrice and now own, but which is nevertheless the balm of the hour.  Demand that he strip off his boxers and wash them in the sink with shampoo.  And, with my boots and gear clanging at my imaginary policeman blues, I will need to be ready to counter his remonstration with: no you cannot just turn them inside out.  Actually, that’s what I would just as soon do myself.
            The room’s temperature, in typical Econolodge fashion, is impossible to get just right.  By morning we’ll be either sweltering under our starched sheets and polyester bedspread, or freezing our asses off.  Or, more predictably, the man-boy, who is closest to the unit (and in direct line of the massive TV) will be sweltering and we will be freezing.  No matter.  We are here for only our short 8 hours and then, as Cheryl has planned out, we will be on our way for the next 490-mile stretch.
            I will drift off into a fitful sleep in the Philadelphia of Rocky the boxer-turned-restaurant-owner.  Then being the light sleeper in the crowd, the insomniac even, I will wake, either sweltering or freezing, to turn the TV off.  Cheryl will be struggling to breath and the man-boy will be lying there, one arm pulled up over his head, his boxers drying on the towel rod.  He will have the half-levitating look in his young face of one who dreams about John Lennon in 2010.
The eight hours of rest turn into 10.  We were more tired than we thought. Outside, Connecticut is cold.  Snow banks in the parking lot now ice across from the plastic orange and Day-Glo mauve of a Dunkin’ Donuts that this morning in the frigid air shattered by the air brakes of nearby tractor trailers looks incontrovertibly unappetizing.  The Corolla looks forlorn next to the snow, its New York plates giving it instant contrarian definition in this otherwise sad sack excuse for a Microcosm of America.  Can one make a fair assessment of any place from the parking lot of a donut shop and an Econolodge?  Probably not, but assess we do.  What else can we do in late 2010 America except peer out from a temporary static point on the superhighway and take a snapshot with our camera phone?
            I load the car with our luggage then shiver back inside to join Cheryl and the man-boy for the free breakfast that comes with last night’s accommodations. To approach the breakfast nook of an American Motor Lodge is to approach an obstacle course.  Into this vortex one becomes a high school sophomore all over again.  Where do I go?  How do I act?  Mini bagels…toast with or without schmear?  The other two are already seated at a teetering table, everything in Styrofoam, plastic spoons barely concave enough to snare two Cheerios at a time.  Two men, one young one old, one thin, one fat, are at the next table, leaning against the wall, each with a white disposable cup designed to provide a token of coffee or tea before the MotorLodge bids ye farewell.  Cheryl, wearing the same black patterned dress with black leggings and boots as the day before, has a way of ingratiating herself to strangers, prematurely if you ask me.  She is already smiling and solicitous to them, eyes bright and inviting.  They are working stiffs, cuffed at the dungaree ankle, booted, flannelled both.  Grizzled as on-the-road men become, especially when only in the company of other men.  I twist my cornflakes out of the plexiglass dispenser, back and forth.  It takes one and half turns before the sheeny white disposable bowl is filled with no room for milk, sized to be held between fingers like a thimble:  “Eat thy morsel then Fare thee, well!”
            The two men are on the road, the younger, David, driving the rig with a double-wide pre-fab home, and the older, Clayton, driving the lead vehicle with “Wide Load” emblazoned on it.  This is their moment of repose, together, the backs of their chairs leaning against the cheesy, breakfast nook wall-paper.  It would appear that because of a recent stroke Clayton is no longer allowed to drive the rig.  He must wait a year before being allowed to drive and now, at age seventy, is following the much younger David who says less, is less sure of himself and seems ready to hit the road.  But Clayton, taking his cues from the inquiring Cheryl, recalls driving his rig in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001.
            “Been there thousands of time, but never…never seen it like that.  Chaos.  The traffic either stopped still or racing like the devil.  Cop finally come up to me says, just get the hell out.  Get the hell out of New York or you’ll be here for a long time.”  He clamps down his teeth, looks thoughtfully at the floor.  Cheryl is a good listener.  She’s told him how she and I heard the second plane hit the towers in our Brooklyn apartment, before we moved back out west.  How we watched it on the television after a phone call from an out-of-town relative alerting us to what was going on.  For Clayton, as for all of us, I suppose, the story of 9/11 has migrated into an archive.  To retrieve the memory means to hazard re-living something that makes the throat catch, the heart race, the future to recede as fast as the past normally does.
            David nods in time to the story.  His left boot tips to the side, resting on the floor.  There is a hole in the sole.  The two of them look as ungainly as I feel, thrown together in a room of wobbly, pressed wood breakfast tables with fellow guests readying for the ride in the three-day old wake of Christmases past, the lobby tree, tumescent below a holiday cheer banner as flaccid as the tree is artificially erect, humming with lights.
            The man-boy has left his I-pod in the car the night before and is without wires.  Hunkered down over his tiny, inadequate bowl of Fruit Loops look-a-likes, he is listening to the conversation.  His long, light brown hair is still wet from the shower and shooting out from under his soiled blue baseball cap.  He was eight when America was attacked in 2001.  And being the thoughtful grandfather living in New York City at the time, I squirrled away the New Yorker (whose somber cover is completely black except for the merest hint of the twin towers) along with the front page of the Times.  For posterity, I thought at the time.  But it’s hard for me to think of him as caring for anything material like that in the age of Google.
            We’ll see.
            We bid the men goodbye.  Cheryl all smiles.  Warm.  If they could, the two of them might take her to lunch just so that they could keep talking to her.  I think of myself as a good conversationalist, friendly with strangers, always doing the asking.  But Cheryl’s authentic while I’m a performer.  Genuine while I just work the room.  It occurs to me that she is grounded by their regionalism—upstate New York for both of them but close enough to Yankeeland which she misses, although she is quick to say that she does not.  Most of the time.
Earlier, while I was showering, Cheryl had gone out and picked up a couple of T-shirts for me and the man-boy.  While she was wise enough to carry extra under things, and even another dress and tights, the man-boy and are what we wore out of Aunt Diane and Uncle Pete’s house the morning before.  Now he and I are twins, pocketed T’s that have that starched, creased look to them right off a hanger or a box.  We both wear a size large and I can’t help but notice as the man-boy slips his on how much he’s filled out in the shoulders.  And though I have forty pounds on him now, I realize that very soon he’ll not only be taller than I am, but larger.   This is not what I want to hear.  The boy has been living with us full-time for four years and, in typical male fashion, our bodies have been the nexus of our competition with each other.  It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps eighteen months or so, that the rough-housing had to stop.  We were standing in the tiny bedroom where Cheryl and I don’t make love anymore due to our sudden full-time parental duties in a tiny house, and the boy was slugging me in the arm.  Hard slugs, really, at age 15+, proving for the hundredth time where he ends and I begin.  I had taken to hitting him back, all in good fun.  Right?
It’s the way we show affection for each other, I had told Cheryl who whenever she heard us grappling, would scold us and the dog would start barking.
“It’s just our competitive nature coming out.”
She looked at me worried, unbelieving.  “Your father used to overpower you to the point that you hated him,” she reminded me.  “You’re doing the same thing with him.  He doesn’t like it.”
That was early on when the man-boy was first hitting puberty.  So early on I set a policy for this boy who was often trying to get a reaction out of me through his fists:  don’t ever start it.  But there was another policy I decided on that, even still, I’m not so sure about when it comes to the boy turned man-boy who lives with me.  It doesn’t do him any good to handicap yourself, to hold back, or the man-boy will never know what he is capable (or not capable) of.  He’ll never know what it means to have and honor a worthy opponent in life.
That worked for a while.  He would give me his best shot, to the arm or to the chest, and I would give it back, both of us ever-calibrating in that tussling way males have when muscle was being flexed and where the kidneys lay.  But, as in that tussling way males have, calibrations make way for besting the other, at times at any cost, and emotions flood the plains.  Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was just that sometimes we could not decide when the other was game for the game, and heartily resented it when a fist came out of nowhere in the hall, the car, or, on this particular fateful day, in the bedroom.
“You hit me harder than I hit you!” he exclaimed, eyes flashing in a head whose hair still sported a buzz.
“I hit you as hard as you hit me,” I said.  “And I wasn’t expecting it.  You always start these things but then you get pissed when I fight back.”
He slugged me again.  Hard in the shoulder.  I hit him back, my frustration growing.  “Cut it out!”  He said, rubbing his arm.
“You cut it out.”

Interstate 80: A Cross Country Travelogue–Part 16

Part 16:
This is what I’m thinking about as
we speed by Lincoln, Nebraska with its sort-of classical looking capitol
building with domed tower, and its PhDs leaning into classroom corners with
growing cobwebs and head towards Kearney. 
And I have faint stirrings of regret for this first marriage to a
gorgeous Polish Catholic woman who graduated from college in physics in two and
a half years cum laude but was
alienated from her own family of birth—the only thing that mattered.  In the end what my Ex wanted was what my Mormon
faith was selling:  family.  It’s what we all want.  But what is being sold doesn’t exist anymore,
including (and arguably especially) in Mormon Utah.  This is the travesty of my pioneer ancestors
who came west, driven by a nascent faith. 
The faith matured as, it would seem, everything in America matures—into
an industry where everyone’s on message, and the sales force is out in
force.  There’s money to be made.  Illusions to be sold.  Piety and money.  The Chosen People and property.  Love all around.  “Families are Forever.”
Joe and Cheryl and I are more of
the family norm, these days.  And we’re
actually more traditional than most.  A
married couple raising a child.  We are
one of 60,000 grandparents in the Beehive State alone who are raising their
grandkids.  Most of us don’t have
custody.  Many of us aren’t getting child
support.  Retirement funds are being used
for college.  Second mortgages for food
for that extra hungry 6-footer standing at the refrigerator in his too-short
pajama bottoms.  And religion’s response
to all of this is, we’ve got to get back to Leave it To Beaver.  Damn the torpedoes.  Full steam ahead.  Never mind that we are chasing a damned
illusion and spawning even more devastation by our not acknowledging
reality.  I’m starting to sound like a
preacher myself.  Maybe I’ll start my own
religion.  Mid-wife a new persecution
complex of the righteous.  This is the
land of opportunity, after all. 
Entrepreneurship abounds.   Might
be better off just starting another multi-level marketing scheme.  “Xango Makes Your Dreams Come True!”
It’s really getting cold now.  The Nebraska sky is clear, but this place is
damned, damned cold.  It’s time to
EconoLodge.  We exit north off of I-80 on
this New Year’s Eve.  They’ve had  snow here recently, mounds of it, not only
crusting the curvilinear exit, but clumped dangerously over black ice.  The city is surprisingly far off the
interstate, and the road has not been plowed, or barely.  We dodge the drifts, slow to a crawl, tires
spinning.  My first thought is that
Kearney has been hard hit by the recession, to the point that now they don’t
plow their streets.  We find out later
that if it’s less than six inches, city plows are not dispatched. 
We wend our way to a strip mall,
park, emerge.  It’s time to secure some
warm-wear.  Or warmer-wear as the case
may be, now that we are in sub-zero Nebraska. 
For me, a change of footware after four days on the road would be
sufficient for my needs.  While physically
I’m contracting everything, including my brain, Joe is stretching outside the
car.  He’s wearing his tinted John Lennon
glasses, the ones Nana is always asking him to take off when he’s indoors or, as
we are now, in the gloaming.  Some
argument about how he needs to see where he’s going, but she doesn’t understand
that this is an identity thing unlike all the accoutrements we all buy—not
because of functionality—but because it tells us who we are.  All I can think of when I see him walk
upstairs wearing his sunglasses at home is if he’s smoking pot and trying to
hide it.  This is a conversation we’ve
had openly, many times.  For all intents
and purposes, he should be thick into the stuff.  Not only does an absent man in Joe’s life
whose name here shall remain obscured qualify as a pot-head but so do most of
Joe’s friends, including the one across the street where strange cars are
starting to stop by at all hours of the day and night.  
We head towards a Wal-Mart-styled
store, the kind of outlet that can’t decide what it is, with little order to
the chaos of stuff that ranges from peanut butter brands I’ve never heard of to
bunny slippers.  Dented cans labeled frijoles instead of “beans.”  Tonight, in celebration of the approaching
new year, we are determined to find a next generation EconoLodge—a Ramada or
Rode Inn with a swimming pool.  And so here,
in this mart filled with the rubble of our marketed land, we are in search of,
yes, staggeringly true on this cold New Year’s Eve—swimming gear.  This is part of Cheryl’s campaign to make the
cross-country trip from hell less hellish, in the same line as the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame.  Me?  I’m headed for the liquor store.  (Hey. 
It is New Year’s Eve after all.)
The liquor store is a happy
place.   Christmas decorations still
abound along with a card board stand-up of a grinning Captain Morgan.  The end caps are filled with strangely shaped
bottles on sale and people are smiling. 
Two of the clerks, a rubbery-faced middle-aged guy and a woman in her
30s in an Absolut T-shirt and hair that looks like it hasn’t moved in a decade
stand side-by-side behind the counter, ribbing each other, saying “Howya
doin’?” to the customers and shaking brown paper bags out with a snap of their
“Biting cold out
there.  Yep.  A biting cold,” says the guy to a senior with
a blue parka puffing around his torso. 
“Find what you’re
needin’ today?  Got a party you’re goin’
to?  Looks like maybe I should join ya!”
he says, eyeing the case of PBRs and the cheap bottle of champagne.  This is definitely beer country, with the
year-end nod to the bubbly.  I feel
somewhat conspicuous standing among the wine bottles with a vague calculus in
my head consisting of our credit card balance (rising precipitously since we
left Maine), local norms (beer, beer…or beer) and what walking to the counter
with any one of these bottles of vino will say about me:  that I’m not from here.  That I’m superior than Kearney-ites, that I
am one of the chosen, whatever that means in these post-church days of mine.
end up with the sort of wine I end up with in Salt Lake, though admittedly with
much less mark up (a kind of forced tithing foisted on unbelievers).  A cabernet from Sonoma—definitely on the
cheap end of that exceedingly wide continuum—with a label that looks smart
without looking gimmicky. 
says the woman with the hair.  I might be
looking at Midwest Gothic, but having spent New Year’s Eve once before (along
with Thanksgiving and a few other holidays) with former in-laws , and my Ex, I
am uncomfortable operating strictly on mean stereotypes.  Or, I like to think that I don’t operate
strictly on mean stereotypes, which is to say, dear reader, that I always
operate on stereotypes, often on the mean ones, but I have a whole menu of ways
that I keep myself from knowing that. 
great,” I respond, dropping my final consonant as de rigeur.  “Been driving
four days now.  Got stranded in
Boston.”  I’m looking for a response but there’s
nothing there.  Maybe she doesn’t know
how far away Boston really is. 
my,” she says, and I can sense that the jolly factor in this place is pretty
much just skin deep.  The face of
retail.  I try to engage her on a more
local, potentially meaningful level but it just comes out snarky.
don’t seem very well plowed around here. 
Driving in this evening.”   This
is where I learn about the 6 inch rule. 
She busies herself with something under the counter. 
guess us Nebraskans don’t consider it worth the trouble to plow when it’s just
a skiff of the stuff.  Anything
else?”  Her smile is tight.  The same tight smile I recognize as the
flight attendant’s.
look over at Captain Morgan, who seems more larcenous than ever in this fluorescent
lighting at the end of the first decade of the new millennium.  Perhaps a nip of him is in order I
think.  Instead, I reach for a bottle of
the cheap bubbly and plunk it on the counter.
that’s the spirit,” she cackles, snapping the paper bag open with practiced
ease.  The shared experience of buying
things hides a multitude of animosities. 
Maybe consumerism really is the gear box that makes the world
turn—socially constructed or not.
the package store is connected to the K-Mart-with-an-identity-crisis, and I go
looking for the other two.  I find Cheryl
wandering, a black leotard thing on a hanger dangling from her hand. 
swimming suits.  This will have to do,”
she says.  I like her persistence.  Nothing is going to keep her from getting
into a hot tub tonight.  Joe and me?  We’ll manage somehow in our skivvies.  I look around for Joe.  We gotta get out of here.  I turn back toward the liquor store, then
wander towards the back.  There are rows
of metal shelves picked over from the holidays, cluttered with stray faux-terra
cotta planters, boxes of cheap Christmas lights, one torn open, its contents
spilling out like guts.  A solitary
artificial wreath with bright red plastic clinging rubber cranberries. 
find him in the hat department.  For
miles now he’s been talking about getting what his Nana calls a “watch cap,” a
knit hat that has apparently returned to vogue for the high school set, at
least those inner-city kids in Salt Lake. 
He has a gray one on his head, and he’s looking for a mirror.  He sees me standing there with my bag of
papered booze, and he turns away, annoyed it seems, that I’m there.  I pad after him, pretending to look at the
collection of four-foot tall electric Christmas candles (for the lawn, I presume)
and wire reindeer implanted with pointy holiday bulbs.  One of them is tipped over on its side.  Road kill. 
Joe turns the corner of one aisle. 
This is where I try to remember to practice my breathing according to
the principles of mindfulness.  I’m ready
to go—got the booze under arm—and I’m waiting for my family, each lost in their
own hemisphere.  Buying things.  Re-connecting with that thread that brings us
back from our wandering across the prairies. 
This store could be anywhere along Freeway USA, from Farmington, Maine
to Cheyenne, Wyoming.  We may not be
power shopping, but we’re drinking at the trough that makes us all
American.  Swiping our nearly maxed-out
Visa at checkout is the final recognizable nodule on the familiar parabolic arc
that sends us back out into the world happy with our purchases, again part of
the collective. 
is no mirror for Joe to see himself in with his new watch cap, so he pulls it
off his head, and gives me a quick, sidelong glance.  I suspect he’s worried that he doesn’t look
acceptable in it.  He ambles towards the
front of the store, looking for Nana, avoiding me, his shoulders rounded, the
cuffs of his drab green coat with the hood down to his knuckles.  I pad after him, breathing in, breathing
            Experiencing the full breath body I breathe
            Experiencing the full breath body I
breathe out…

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 11)

The Paige Compositor

That night we find shelter at an EconoLodge in West Liberty, Iowa.  No movie tonight.  We are locked onto the Weather Channel, another niche channel that on any other night would, like ESPN 2 through 345, register as more cable media segmentation to the point of lunacy.  (Give me that old time Walter Cronkite any day; at least all the white middle class folks had something in common the next morning at work instead of locking in to programming that only reflects their micro world.)  Would seem like ESPN with radar screens except tonight when getting through the next 24 hours will be an obstacle course.
Cheryl looks at the radar on the screen and intuits how the system is descending out of the North.  She makes a call.  Leave early in the morning, avoid the snow moving into Iowa the next day, sleep during the storm somewhere in Nebraska and (hopefully) the snow will be cleared out in Wyoming on the last day of our trek.
We turn off the lights and try to find our way into sleep.  In my dreams I’m in a Victorian house that you might find Mark Twain living in outside Hartford, Connecticut.  It’s a museum now but filled with toys from every era of the American experiment.  But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill wooden blocks and hoops and sticks.  Based on the placards that I cannot see for some reason, the artifacts are supposed to be inventions of sorts:  vacuum cleaners that serve martinis as they move around the house by themselves, contraptions that lower and raise the lip of doors so that shuffling houseguests don’t trip, contraptions with gears and pulleys that grind and whirr, an electric car.  It’s all a weird cross between The Jetsons and steam punk and as I wander around the house trying to read the placards, I end up on the second floor where Twain’s spectacularly failed printing machine The Paige Compositor sits like a giant paper weight that might eat you.  I am familiar with this machine, how Twain used the royalties from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to finance this new printing press in 1889 which would, he thought, be the beginning of a new information age, and make him a fortune.  In the end the Linotype beat out the Compositor with its 18,000 parts and sent its inventor to the poor house and Twain into bankruptcy.  Then I hear the sound of a pinball machine in the next room.  Joe is there, leaning over the slanted glass top, one hand on each side, fingers to the buttons.  I move around to look through his long hair which, without a hat, hangs over his face, but I can’t get far enough around.  Suddenly the house blasts away on jet engines located on either side, and it’s an airplane leaving to go west and the pinball machine lights up “Tilt,”  Tilt.”
We awake to ice.  It is Saturday, December 31, 2010 and, peering out of the motel window, through the fog, it is clear that we are no longer in the East.  We have made our bumpy, haphazard way through the seaboard, the hardwoods, the great lakes and cities of Illinois and Indiana and now I-80 is straightening and stretching, plumbed west, the chalk line snapped hard against the frozen ground so that there is no way to get lost.  It must have been this way for the pioneers.  Or so they thought.  “How hard can it be to get through Iowa?”
            Downstairs in the astringent lobby, breakfast awaits us.  There are 4 pieces of bread under a plastic dome waiting to be toasted.  Clearly a fourth guest arrived during the night, making us four.   I can see that the owner who checked us in late last night when we decided that Iowa City was just too…damn…far away, has carefully sectioned off four slices of Wonder Bread with his brown Indian hands and went to bed.  In the matter of a decade, it seems, Pakistanis and Indians have taken over the shitty road-side motels of America.  It’s like they have a network of secret Hindu handshakes, or more realistically, a website in Sanskrit and Urdu fronted by a round-eyed, dark-haired sub-continent beauty with a potu in the middle of her forehead declaiming how, in the middle of a corn field outside Iowa City, USA, your American Dream Awaits!
            We don’t bother with the toast.  At this point in our cross-country journey, the only thing that makes sense is to grab a cup of very bad coffee and a small box of Sugar Pops half of which will end up between the two front seats of the Corolla as we shovel it in dry along the, now icy, interstate we’ve come to believe is our home.  But today the way is not clear…and it is definitely not safe. 
Ice is everywhere, like a glaze that has formed out of the frigid air.  The grass is coated, the trees are burdened down like the severed claws from a rooster, upside down, the road signs crystalline.  And of course the road, which seems fine at first as we pass through the fog of the city where the hospital and sports arena are, inexplicably linked together (same green exit sign) and ubiquitous water towers, reminiscent of stylized mushroom clouds, peer through the mist.  We’re in the middle of painter Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” but frozen and, eventually, sporting signs for Amana Colonies–seven historic German-American prairie villages—and Kinze Manufacturing.
There is a sign for Herbert Hoover highway.  I wonder if there are historic colonies of Great Depression era shanties—Hoovervilles—restored and gleaming with gift shoppes ready for the holiday haul.  Probably not. Too reminiscent of what they’re calling the Great Recession of 2008, which is supposed to be receding.  But where?
We are sliding.  So we slow.  We are creeping, feeling our way.  I’m at the wheel and Cheryl is leaning forward as if the 18 extra inches are going to help her see her way through this soup.  We come up on a slight hill and down in the median is a car, tits up.  This is where my first responder Flight Attendant chutzpah kicks in.  It never occurs to me that we won’t stop, and render help.  It’s me at my best—rushing into a burning house, if need be.  It’s the ultimate antidote to my armchair cynicism toward the world, and it’s fairly leaping out of me, even before I pull over to the breakdown lane and put the Corolla into park. 
Cheryl is saying something to me along the lines of “What should we do?” “Who do we call?” “Where are you going?”  But I’m already out in the freezing rain, the glory of the world literally in my face, stinging my ears.  I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the adrenaline.  An SUV from the East-bound side has pulled over next to the median, the driver out, in a baseball hat standing there, waiting to cross, looking hesitant, like he’s not sure he wants to get involved.  Another SUV/mini-van has pulled into the left break-down lane on the opposite side.  He wants to know if anyone is in the car.  I shrug my shoulders, palms up, irritated somehow at his query:  can’t he see that I just fucking got here?  I’m on the wrong side of the car which has flipped over, and I’m all turned around.  There is mud and yellow grass crammed between the rear right wheel well and tire.  When I peer in there is an interior smell of cigarettes, human sweat and damp upholstery, the forward brake light is still on, below a crushed plastic covering.  The contents of the car have re-materialized on the damp headliner—clusters of coins, cigarette butts, Cheetos, cellophane wrappers of every stripe.  The seat belts dangle from bottom to top, twisted, curiously sprung out of shape so that they’re limp.  This is disorienting, and even in an emergency like this, it feels invasive, like I’ve just opened a door on someone’s pathetic, claustrophobic life.
No one is in the car.
How long has this been here?  I look around outside.  The guy standing above me from the other side has his hands in his pockets by now and is looking back at his honey in his mini-van.  He’s still trying to decide if this drama is over.  If he can step away with any semblance of a clear conscience and head back out, toward Indiana.  We are two travelers headed in opposite directions and the only thing we have in common is this toppled Honda Accord and the Iowan wind biting at us.  The occupant of this car should be somewhere, right?  Maybe he was drunk and didn’t want to get caught.  Maybe he had stolen the car at the last truck stop, sped out of control coming down from this knoll on I-80, lost control, crashed then bolted across the spent fields outside Des Moines.  Maybe. 
I shrug at my compatriot, turn to the guy in the car on our side who is now pulling away.  Continuing on.  “Nobody here,” I shout.  “Guy’s gone.”  I turn.  Cheryl and Joe are still in the car, behind fogged glass.  I’m actually a little disappointed.  Flight Attendant Dave flies down I-80 aisle, first aid kit in tow, passengers everywhere turning in their seats, a woman screaming but, alas, it is nothing:  a man choking on a now dislodged chicken bone, or even worse, a man choking on a chicken bone who is no longer even there.
“What’s going on?” says Cheryl when I open the car door.  “Are they okay?”  Joe is wide-eyed but calm. 
“Nobody’s there.”  I slide in behind the wheel.  “It’s just sitting there.”  I turn the key and roll down the frosted window so that I can see clearly over my left shoulder before pulling out.
“Damn thing’s just sittin’ there.”
“Well, at least no one was hurt.”
“No one that we know of anyway,” I conclude, mentally returning the first aid kit to its overhead compartment.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 3)

The on-ramp to I-84 is a bobsled chute that propels us away from the Microcosm, temporarily southwest towards Waterbury and away from the ESPN headquarters in nearby Bristol.  Ah…ESPN—a microcosm through cable unto itself.  A place where a programming team sits around all day in complimentary Nike gear and continues to split the imaginary syllables of the word “Sports”—like we are fond of doing with atoms.  Twenty-two TV stations, 19 internet sites and 9 radio stations later and we are watching everything from scrabble competitions to Rollerblade Hockey, some on SKYCAM, and Fantasy Football to the real NFL  (if there is a real football league anymore) which ESPN paid 8.8 billion dollars for 8 years of broadcast rights.  It’s not easy to imagine what the propaganda dropped over Europe would say if it were written today: “Family first in this bucolic town on the quaint Quinnipiac River, where Mrs. Brown serves her famous cherry pie to her hard-working men decamped for 40 hours straight in front of homegrown ESPN on a tulip-filled spring day in Southington, Connecticut–Microcosm of America.”
            These are the sorts of rants that pickle my brain these days, still stinging as I am from our self-imposed jettison from air travel.  If we can’t make it home before our luggage and our Christmas gifts, by damn, I get to cast aspersions on The Worldwide Leader in Sports, including its coverage of spelling bees and outhouse races. (Shit!)
            By the time we straighten out to a more westward-ho direction, passing Danbury, I am less cantankerous.  Having traveled the world at 40,000 feet, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been to Danbury, a.k.a. “The Hat City.” Even so, Danbury is the site of a federal prison where during the Second World War one in six inmates was a conscientious objector.  Obviously Danbury is not the microcosm we wanted to front to the Germans. One in six inmates in the United States’ federal prisons was a conscientious objector.  Suddenly this relative outpost had a population of highly educated men who enlisted other prisoners in their cause.  It is because local laborers began protesting in solidarity with the conscientious objectors that Danbury started desegregating its inmates.  One of the nation’s first to do so.
            Armed with even this trivia, I still wouldn’t recommend picking up a hitchhiker outside of Danbury.
            Still no sight of I-80, the continuous thread that pulls Utah in our direction as much as guides us westward.  It occurs to me that if its eastern terminus isn’t in Boston, where the hell is it?  San Francisco is its western anchor, that I’m sure of because of family vacations to nearby Palo Alton when I was a child.  It is the second-longest Interstate Highway, second only to I-90 and its first iteration of the Mass Pike.  I-80 is also the closest to the nation’s first cross-country road, the august Lincoln Highway.  It’s the great American West that cared the most about transcontinental travel, for obvious reasons. 
To date, there is a still a geographical inferiority complex in Westerners, from sports teams to publishing.  The only way to compete with the Eastern Seaboard, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific Coast states, is to build one’s own communities, start one’s own universities, start a symphony.  Build a damn Lincoln Highway that connects the homeless tempest tossed to homesteads in the great Mid, Mountain and Desert Wests.  Endure the quips and quotes from Mark Twain.  Celebrate one’s own, whether it be Edward Abbey or Wallace Stegner.  Stake a claim much like one does in the Sierra Nevada. 
            This is what one is reminded of when crossing the country at the end of 2010.  The hierarchy of place.  And only those of us from the West—or worse, from the sub-West (Utah)—even register the insult which smarts all the more.   No one comes to visit us in Salt Lake City compared to when we lived in New York.
            At this point, what hasn’t registered is how long it will take to get home.  Four to five days—it’s just one day after another over Christmas week.  So what?  Get er done, as they say.  Pedal to the metal and get er done.  It’s the American way, like going to the moon or executing a hostile corporate takeover to lay off thousands.
            Eighty Four takes us to the Connecticut/New York line.  Progress.  We are going North by Northwest toward the Hudson River and Newburgh.  When Cheryl drives she narrates everything, reading signs aloud, saying whatever pops into her head, which can be annoying.  She also drives painfully slow and hesitates dangerously whenever trying to pass another car or truck.  This is just my opinion, of course.  And I know that I am in dangerous, dangerous territory when I fault women drivers.  But it’s true.  And what makes it okay in my humble opinion, is that she finds fault with me as well, but for opposite reasons.  I drive too fast and am too distractable.  For this reason, we have come with a brilliant preamble whenever we get in the car together.  We both simply say to the other:  “You are the worst goddamned driver in the world and someday you’re going to murder us.”  The rule is we can say this as loudly and forcefully as we wish, but we cannot say anything for the duration of the road trip.
            I am reminded of this when we come to a grinding halt on the freeway for reasons that neither of us understands.  You’d think that not moving would be relaxing to a backseat driver, but it’s not.  Cheryl instantly starts calculating how much time we’re losing; how many miles we’ll have to add to the next day to catch up.  We turn off the engine.  A cop car with its lights flashing scurries by on the breakdown lane to the right.
            We turn on the radio.  Jesus, country western, Glenn Beck. Rock.  Next?  A little NPR please?   
            “Hey, that’s Foreigner dude.”  The man-boy speaks.  I thought he’d drifted off, absorbed by his I-pod.  But here he is.  I flip past Foreigner not realizing that “Hot Blooded” is as good as it’s going to get for a while here outside of  Pawling, New York, home of the oldest municipality-owned golf course in America and not one but two Metro-North train stops.  Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires, it is “[a] compelling, stable community” reads its website.  This is what I need.  Stable ground that is equally compelling somehow, and not just because I play golf.  (I don’t.)
“But you’ve got to give me a sign,” the song plays…
Come on girl, some kind of sign
Tell me, are you hot mama? You sure look that way to me
I vaguely remember this song.  It came out the summer after my junior year in high school when I was just starting to feel a biting superiority to popular culture.  Of course it didn’t hurt that the song was overtly salacious.  Nothing more appealing to an insecure 11th grader than the double shot of esthetics-mongering and the righteousness of the religious.  Even though this is from my era, the man-boy can rattle off names of band members, like the vocalist Lou Gramm whose hard-edged, high-strung voice pummels this song with sexual fire… 
Well I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three
Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
I’m hot blooded, I’m hot blooded
…and even controversy. 

Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?
Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

More waling guitars. 

“This is going to really slow us down,” says Cheryl looking out the window at the wall of woods.  Funny how when one stops on a high-speed freeway, a complete stop, the world first takes on the scent of not only inconvenience, but inconsequence.  How dare the world conspire to stop me, is the sentiment.  But then there’s the resultant wake bumping you up and a little sideways on a swell from behind, the wake you were once leaving behind as you sped west suddenly.  It catches up with you, and there is a kind of regret in its aftermath that you have categorically let slip what was propelling you forward.  And its costs.  You regret that too.  At least the sun is out for a minute, limning clouds as it temporarily seeks a place from which to hang. 
We finish out with Foreigner, grateful, actually, for a conversational “in” with the man-boy.  This is where Cheryl and I come together as I imagine we wouldn’t be able to as easily if we were the man-boy’s biological parents.  Holding hands we routinely enter the openings provided by his expressed interests, even when they materialize as discourse about the “radness” of Monster Trucks, or, in this case, a genre of music the two of us claim to have transcended—or just misplaced to be more accurate–at this, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century.
            In the rear view mirror, I notice he has been reading U.S. Today, which he picked up outside our motel room door that morning.  He has written all over the Life section, scrawled words and dizzy designs in pen that make the paper look worn, thin. 
            “What are you writing?” I ask.
            “Stuff,” he says.  A conversational stopper for sure. 
            “Do you like that paper?”
            “It’s pretty cool.”  As a former freelance journalist, I consider launching into my staid-old diatribe about how Gannett’s flagship national paper experiment successfully bled dry its other city newspapers across the country during the 90s.  (Bastards.)  But I elect to forgo that for a potential teaching moment on the joys of reading print, fast disappearing.  Instead, in the silence he surprises me with:
            “Just some of my thoughts, you know.  That’s what I’ve been putting down.”  He laughs nervously, a laugh that both inures me to him and breaks my heart at the same time.  Cheryl is listening, good grandmother that she is, probably thankful for the diversion from calculating mileages.
            “Do you read many newspapers at East High?”
            “Not really,” he says.  Another stopper?
            “How far are you in your book?”
            “I dunno.  He’s still in Liverpool.  They’re talking about his mom.”
            “What about his mom?”
            “She gave him up.  And then she took him back later.”  Nervous laugh.  “Then she got hit by a car and died.”
            “Ouch!”  Cheryl has opened the atlas that is proving woefully inadequate.  It’s best if only one of us carries one-on-one with the man-boy, the other feigning disinterest.  For his sake, we presume.  To keep him talking.
            “Yeah.  It kind of sucked.”
            “Who raised him?  I mean after she gave him up.”  He is looking out the window on the driver’s side.  I can tell, even though I can’t see him without craning my neck.  It occurs to me that maybe he’s perched behind my seat so that he doesn’t have to give me eye contact.  This even though he has to sit sideways behind my seat to accommodate his knees.
            “His aunt.”  He says.  Now I know that the conversation is over.  At least for now.  And it’s just as well.  The traffic is starting to move again.  The sun has disappeared for the rest of the morning.