Stinkbusters

Ghostbusters

In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.

49er

Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

Shower2

Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.

Shower1

Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?

 

For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/

 

Grand Canyon

Duck on a rock

An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA

We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.

It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament.  I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.

I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room.  Water? Check.  Long rack?  Check.  Pens?  Check.  Score sheets?  Check.

After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late.  I have to win all three games today to finish in first.  No pressure.  Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all.  After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.

I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel.  By a lot.  I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out.  She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking.  Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation.  I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room.  What I really want to do is scream.

Trounced by the blue hairs again.  “Trounced” isn’t even the right word.  Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it.  Hemingway was right about grace under pressure.  I start burping up Cheerios.

Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne.  Okay, I figure, I must be in third now.  But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth.  That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.

I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.

I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot.  Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)

Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale.  I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area.  We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag.  That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.

“Of course, go right ahead,” I say.  Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent.  You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma.  Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.

“I might be a little while,” she warns me.

“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.”  What do I care?  More time to relax.  If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.

I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected.  As I exited the rest room, here comes the director.  “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said.  Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall?  I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!”  (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!”  Grrrr!

I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty.  All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced.  Here comes the director.

“Who’s your opponent?”  I tell him.  Then I fill him in on the details.  “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”

The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up.  About a minute later, she does.  Here comes the director.

It’s not like she should have been surprised.  The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer.  “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table.  I tell her I did.  “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?”  Now she’s just sounding whiny.  I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes.  I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.

Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago.  Same director.  I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games.  The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game.  I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock.  I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.

I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV.  The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.”  Uh-huh, I thought.  I get it.  The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits.  I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.

But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent.  What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage.  It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled.  I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game.  My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws.  She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off.  I managed to pull off a win.

I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted.  The loo is disgusting, as always.  A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight.  I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal.  I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business.  “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking.  Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized.  I wonder if they have mama issues.

In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait.  There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles.  I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert.  “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players.  I roll my eyes, but I guess I am.  A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.

Someone alludes to “the incident.”  The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.

If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty.  But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones.  My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days.  She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times.  Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke.  Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace.  Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening.  My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out.  “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.

It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks.  Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations.  As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun.  By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold.  Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food.  And then they don’t even get your order right.  “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country.  I take one bite and spit it out.  Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable.  I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer.  When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand.  Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger.  Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players.  She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben.  Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.

And then there is the cold.  And the dark.  At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night.  Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league.  The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through.  As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black.  Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face.   We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step.  Others, however, are not so lucky.  I suppose disaster was inevitable.  Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness.  One woman misses the curb and falls.  Her face gets pretty scraped up.  Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too.  Breaks her collar bone.  Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff.  The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.

Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t.  Ae?  No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation.  Ai?  Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth.  Oi?  No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada).  What about oe?  Does it take an S?  “Yes,” I immediately chime in.  “It’s a bird.”  I detect a dirty look shot in my direction.  “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively.  A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.

“No!” cries the player seated next to me.  “It’s a wind!”  She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary.  Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S.  But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.

She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings.  Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.”  That smug look of victory.

“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.

The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win.  I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure.  A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize.  I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before.  Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board.  Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game.  But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.

I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed.  I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third.  Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in.  I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board.  Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final.  The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line.  My name appears below that line.  In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.

I am totally disgusted.  I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me.  I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall.  I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done.  She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her.  But I don’t want to go back in there.  No way.  When I am upset, I cry.  So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done.  A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container.  We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.

After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection.  It takes me a while to find it.

First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age.  My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work.  Nothing.  I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage.  Still nothing.  I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.

I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.”  Well, that’s surely not going to take an S!  Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary.  OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it.  What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary?  It’s a bird!  It’s a wind!  It’s Superman!  Uh, it doesn’t exist?

Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997).  And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory.  It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.

I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online.  Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money.  However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed.  Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.

And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150.  The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.”  The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.

I do so.  I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.

Elk

We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.

Saved by Hummus

hummus1

While visiting my parents in California’s verdant Central Valley this past weekend, my mother griped about the fact that each of her three children have strange dietary habits and that I, in particular, am difficult to feed.

My mother, who will be 81 years old next month, does not really understand why I am a vegan, regardless of the number of times that I’ve tried to explain it to her.  Nor does she understand why anyone would want to subject themselves to such torture.  She seems to have finally resigned herself (with a heavy sigh) to the fact that I do not eat animal products.

On this occasion, I explained that, when you come right down to it, I am very easy to feed.  It took me a while to figure out how to feed myself effectively on the road, but now when I travel, I figure out what I am going to eat in advance and bring my food with me.  Admittedly, it’s not as fun as the adventures of “who knows what little restaurant we’ll end up in and what unknown culinary treasures await our discovery?”  However, it is a lot more fun than unleashing a stream of invective because we have ended up in a place where we can find nothing for me to eat and I am faced with potato chips and soda from a gas station or convenience store.  It is hard to forget our trip to Whidbey Island in Washington State for a job interview last summer.  It took a lot longer to get there than we had anticipated, and we were lucky that a Safeway was open late.  I ended up eating French bread dipped in hummus in our hotel room.  Not exactly a four-star dining experience, but it beats chips and soda any day.  Then there was another more recent trip that involved asking the hotel night clerk to lend me a can opener so that I could open cans of spinach and garbanzos for dinner.  Again, not what I had planned, but goodness gracious, was I ever glad to have them on hand.  “What are you going to do with that?” my wife asked me once I had opened the cans.  I held up a plastic fork from the hotel lobby by way of explanation.  A lot of people can’t believe that I can make a meal out of cold veggies from a can.  It works just fine in a pinch.  And if you’re hungry enough, it starts to look positively gourmet.

I suppose Exhibit A would be our experience on Friday night.  For weeks, we had anticipated dinner at DiCicco’s, one of our favorite Italian restaurants.  It is conveniently located in the community in which my parents reside.  When we arrived, we found the place packed and a charming accordion player entertaining the crowd with classics and Italian melodies (think “Volaré” and “Funiculi, Funiculà”).  Unfortunately, we soon learned that the eggplant with mushrooms and peppers that I so enjoyed last time was not available.  “But, but, we ordered it last time!” I sputtered to the waitress.  “When was that?” she sneered.  “I’ve been here ten years and that’s never been on the menu.”  I offered that perhaps it was only available at lunch.  She shook her head to disagree.  “Maybe it was some kind of lunch special,” she suggested.  I ended up ordering spaghetti with mushrooms, which, I am sorry to relate, was awful.  Not only was the sauce so spicy that even jalapeño-loving Uncle Guacamole couldn’t stand it, but I had to pick out the cheese that was added without warning.  My wife said her calzone wasn’t much better.  We each ended up eating about three bites, paying the bill and leaving.  We didn’t think complaining would have gotten us anywhere.  Sometimes you just have to write things off.  Too many people think vegans are just plain weirdoes.

Once again, hummus and bread saved me from going hungry.  I truly appreciated that Save Mart stays open late.  Not only that, but I felt as if I had hit the jackpot when 99-cent cartons of garlic flavored hummus were on display.  They expired that day and the store wanted to get rid of them.  Very happy to oblige, Save Mart.

Like mothers everywhere, mine feels a discomforting sense of defeat when she is unable to feed me properly.  When I walk in and load up her refrigerator with almond milk, Earth Balance margarine, soy yogurt, Tofurky deli slices and yes, hummus, I think Mom feels that she has somehow failed.

On Saturday night, we all went out to dinner at a place where I knew I could obtain salad (no cheese, no croutons, no dressing) and vegetarian soup.  My wife retired early, while I stayed up to watch movies with Mom.  I am glad that I was able to keep her company for a few hours.  I think she’s lonely.  And where was my father, you may ask?  Watching gory movies about murders on the little TV in the bedroom that they turned into an office.  My father prizes solitude, seemingly above all else.  I suppose my mother could join him, but I know that I wouldn’t, considering the visual fare that he considers appetizing.  Is this what married life is like for octogenarians?  Feeling like a widow even though your spouse lives with you?  Perhaps I should be grateful that my state of health leaves me very little chance of reaching that age.

Later, I had a cup of tea and brought out my hummus and bread again.  I bring my own bread because the types that my parents buy are nearly always dairy, and half the time it has been frozen for some time and then defrosted.  My mother immediately began to fret again about feeding me.  “How about some hash browned potatoes?” she offered.  “Your sister brought some and left them in the freezer.”  My mother produced the package.  “There’s nothing in them,” she assured me.  I removed my eyeglasses to peruse the ingredients listed in tiny printing.  “Contains milk,” consumers are informed in bold type.  No, thanks.

My sister, who is not a vegan, nevertheless shares my “have food, will travel” lifestyle.  And boy howdy, does she travel.  As a traveling sonographer, she spends about six to ten weeks at a hospital before moving on.  She just returned to California from her second stint in Ohio.  Sis had bariatric surgery a number of years ago and now has severe digestive problems.  She is quite limited on what she feels she can eat, and she can’t eat much of it.  This weekend, my mother related the story of Sis’ Valentine’s Day dinner.  Apparently, her date took her to an upscale restaurant, where she proceeded to annoy the bejabbers out of him by asking the wait staff dozens of questions about the composition of food.  She was particularly insistent that her food be prepared without bacon.  After having to excuse herself three times to vomit, she discovered that her meal had, in fact, been prepared with bacon.

Despite striking out on the hash browns, my mother wasn’t about to give up her efforts to provide me with a late night meal.  “How about some eggplant?” she asked.  Now, eggplant is one of my staples, but my mother claims that she only knows one way to prepare it:  Dredge it in bread crumbs and egg and fry it.  If I want to eat eggplant in her home, either my wife or I have to prepare it (baked in the oven with tomato sauce, mushrooms and garlic — delicious!).  “Are you going to bread it with egg?” I asked her.  “No, thanks.”

“How about some canned corn?”

“No, thanks.  I probably shouldn’t have more starch today.”  As a Type II diabetic, I have to watch the starch, which our bodies so inconveniently turn directly into sugar.

“Green beans?”

I do feel sorry for my mother when she attempts to feed me.  Perhaps one day she will learn that I plan my meals in advance, bring along the food I want, and eat it.

It’s really not that difficult.  Particularly when the alternatives are potato chips, soda and cold vegetables out of cans.

scratching cow

A little lower, please… Just to the left… Ahhhh!  (We spied this bovine using a rock as a scratching post out in the country near my parents’ home.  Notice that this bull has been branded.  Beef cattle are big business out on the rangeland.  Go vegan!)

Adios, Phoenix

Phoenix

PHOENIX AZ

The only thing stranger than being in a place for the very last time, knowing you will never see it again, is being somewhere that you will likely never visit again, but who knows.  In the former category is my last day at any of my former jobs, drawing in bittersweet memories as I look forward to the new challenges that await me on the other side of the front door.  I shall have one of those moments just a few months down the road when my current place of employment closes.

But today I am faced with the latter type of goodbye, as I soak up the final hours of what is likely to be my last of many visits to Phoenix, Arizona.

Our first visit to the Valley of the Sun took place almost exactly a decade ago.  My wife and I were living in California’s Central Valley, both working for the phone company, when I changed positions and found myself with a boss whose office was in Arizona.  Then I got to know her boss, who worked in Iowa.  Then a company in India put in a bid for the purchase of our division and I was asked about my salary in rupees.  But that is another story.

I communicated with the Arizona Boss Lady via phone, instant message and email for eleven months before she finally visited my location and I got to meet her in person.  Not too long after, she decided to convene a meeting of all of her direct subordinates on her home turf in suburban Phoenix.  Most of us got on a plane, but I am a white-knuckle flyer and we therefore jumped in our car instead.

My biggest fears about Phoenix were that it would be about a thousand degrees and that I would have a close encounter with a snake.  Did I mention that snakes engender greater panic in me than even jetliners?

It was a 13-hour drive, and we did it all in one day.  The company provided us with a lovely suite in an extended stay hotel for the week.  I worked all day, so we didn’t have very much time to explore other than looking for interesting places for dinner.  And I am happy to say that I did not set eyes on a single snake, nor was it a thousand degrees (only about ninety).

We subsequently passed through Phoenix on the interstate on the way to my sister’s in Texas a couple of times, but I did not visit again until about four years later, when I drove down with a friend to compete in a regional Scrabble tournament.  Not only were my days fully occupied, but I had a horrible case of bronchitis.  I had neither the time nor the energy to venture out of our hotel (unless you count lying in the sun by the pool and coughing).

So when we moved to California’s low desert three years ago, we rejoiced that Phoenix would be only 140 miles away, close enough to get on more familiar terms with the city.  Along with Laughlin NV and Yuma AZ, Phoenix became one of our regular weekend getaways.  After all, there wasn’t much in our little town.  Without a movie theater or an Italian restaurant, and with the nearest Wal-Mart almost an hour away, every month or two we would bop out of town on Saturday morning in the hope of reacquainting ourselves with the amenities that civilization has to offer.

We could be in Phoenix in about 2½ hours, and our trips usually went something like this:  Grab some fast food and drinks for the road, cruise into Phoenix, get the shopping done, check into the hotel, catch a nap, go out for dinner, see a movie, sleep late, go out to lunch, gas up and drive back to California.

We seldom varied from this routine by much.  So now that we are a few months away from relocating to another part of California that is too far away for a weekend drive to Phoenix, I am forced to face the reality that I have never visited the art museum, never perused the impressive library at Arizona State, never attended a Diamondbacks game and never visited Harrah’s Ak-Chin casino.

Okay, alright, I never really wanted to do any of these things anyway (except maybe the library).  We were always perfectly content to enjoy a few good restaurant meals, shop without California taxes and the annoying CRV on soda bottles, catch a flick at the cheapies up I-17.

So I guess it really is adíos, Phoenix.  You’ve served us well during our years in the desert, and for that, we thank you.

Hasta luego.

 

The Fickle Finger of Fate

fate

Lately, I’ve been reminded of the saying “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

With so much uncertainty on the employment front (I may or may not be transferred to another city), it is difficult to make a decent decision on any matter, large or small, leaving me feeling as wishy-washy as Charlie Brown.

We awoke to a hot Saturday morning and felt the urge to get out of town for a couple of days.  There is just not a lot to do in this remote desert town.  Without a movie theatre or a shopping mall for a hundred miles, about the only public place to get out of the heat and into the air conditioning is a restaurant.  And we only have a few of those, mostly overpriced, visited by us over and over for the past three years.

We thought about heading to Phoenix to see a movie, maybe do some shopping (we have some things to return to Wal-Mart), have a good dinner, stay overnight and drive back after breakfast on Sunday.

We have been through this routine dozens of times.  Sometimes it’s Phoenix, sometimes it’s Yuma, or it could be Nevada or over to the Coachella Valley.  Anywhere but here, our sizzling, baking, boring town.

My wife urged me to hurry up, and I jumped in the shower.  By the time I was ready, we had decided that despite the fun of this sort of spontaneity, it might not be such a great financial idea.  When you figure on three meals out, a hotel room, movie tickets, shopping, two tanks of gasoline and incidentals, this little jaunt would likely run us a couple hundred bucks at least.  We wisely decided to stay home and crank the air conditioning.  My wonderful wife roasted some vegetables for me and I went out to Starbucks to bring her home her favorite iced tea.

Now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to handle our upcoming vacation.  Although I haven’t yet discussed it on this blog (fear not, I will), I am a crazy Scrabble addict who loves nothing better than wandering all over the West playing in Scrabble tournaments.  There’s a big one coming up in the Bay Area, about eight hours drive from here.  Now that we may have to move, however, we are seriously debating the wisdom of spending the large sum of money that this little venture would require.  Not only that, but we have my niece’s high school graduation to attend right after that, and I’m not so sure it would be a good idea to take so much time off of work when change is in the air.  My vacation time has already been approved, mind you, but the thought of being away from the office for two weeks right now leaves me queasy.

Sometimes you just have to sit on it, stay put, preserve the status quo and see what happens.  So now it’s Sunday, we’ve been spending the weekend at home doing a whole lot of nothing, and we wake up and decide to go out to breakfast.  This sounds like a great idea, particularly since a coupon for a free Everyday Slam printed out with our receipt on our last visit to Denny’s.  I start salivating at the thought of fried potatoes, grits and eggs.

It was only 11:00 a.m., but the mercury had already risen to 106°F out here in the desert.  We jumped into old Holly, blasted the A/C and drove down to the end of town where Denny’s sits next to the freeway entrance.

As we turned into the parking lot, we noticed that all the parking spaces near the door were taken.  Driving around the lot, we quickly figured out that there were no spaces available at all.  A vehicle occupied every single parking space.  As we drove past the entrance, we noticed a line of customers standing inside the door and sitting on the banquettes, all waiting for tables.

Oh, that’s right, it’s Mother’s Day!  Our mothers both live hundreds of miles away, so we weren’t going to be seeing them today.  We had already sent out cards and we would call them later.  But just try to get into a restaurant for brunch.

We drove down the street to the Sizzler, only to find the same scene we had just experienced at Denny’s.  While it used to be that Dad made breakfast for Mom on Mother’s Day, or else the kids brought Mom breakfast in bed, it seens that these days the way of the world is to take Mom out to eat.  Even if it means standing in line for an hour.

If you’re not a mother, and you’re not visiting your mother, you’re just plumb out of luck.  And so, like our spur-of-the-moment weekend plans and our Scrabble tournament vacation plans, our Sunday brunch plans evaporated before our very eyes.

It doesn’t matter if you plan for months or make a spontaneous decision.  Either way, fate gets the last laugh.

 

On the Road Again (and again, and again, and again…)

We have put a lot of miles on old Holly lately.  In fact, one could say that we have done the grand tour of the tri-state area.  In the last three or four weeks, we have been to Banning CA, Riverside CA (three times), Yuma AZ and Laughlin NV.  Whether it’s work, pleasure or just a trip to Wal-Mart, it means jumping in Holly and zooming at least 100 miles down the freeway.

It looks as if lots more travel will be on tap for the month of May.  Enjoy the photos and thanks for riding along with us!

 

Windmills 1Windmills 2

Windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass along Interstate 10, between Palm Springs CA and Cabazon CA (about 80 miles east of Los Angeles). You can’t tell from the photo, but it was a windy day through the pass and the windmills were turning furiously.

Arizona sunset

Arizona sunset, Bullhead City AZ

River Palms

River Palms Resort, Laughlin NV. This is one of our favorite weekend getaways out in the desert.

Breakfast at Daniel's

Breakfast at Daniel’s Restaurant in the Regency Casino along the Strip in Laughlin NV. Omelette Florentine with breakfast potatoes and rye toast. This place is a hole in the wall that has excellent food. We also had dinner there Friday for their all-you-can-eat fish fry. The cod is fresh and flavorful with a light breading. The quality has been consistent since we discovered this place a couple of years ago.

Regency cow

Regency Casino’s bovine mascot. Daniel’s Restaurant was once known as the Tropical Cow; the outdoor sign continues to display the old name.

Splinters

Sign on the Regency’s beefy mascot stating “Do not touch or sit on cow (splinters).”

D'Angelo's

D’Angelo’s Restaurant, Bullhead City AZ. This is our favorite spot for Italian food in the desert. It is a locals hangout, favored by retirees living along the Colorado River. This place is difficult to find if you don’t know where you’re going. From northbound AZ Hwy 95, take a left at Riverview (just past Wal-Mart). All the way at the end of Riverview, take a right, a left and another right. It is located just off the river by the marina.

D'Angelo's salad bar

D’Angelo’s salad bar. Any salad bar that contains pickled beets, chick peas, Chinese corn cobs and pineapple gets my stamp of approval!

Eggplant

Eggplant parmagiana and spaghetti at D’Angelo’s. The fresh marinara sauce was delicious! Served with garlic bread and all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar. The price? $11.00. Donna had her favorite, the “butcher’s” calzone, which has an all-meat stuffing and is served with marinara or meat sauce on the side. This place is a hidden gem and I can’t praise it enough.

Colorado River

Colorado River from the Nevada side, looking across to Arizona. Who needs Hawaii?

Vidal Jct ag station

The agriculture inspection station at Vidal Junction CA.

Vidal Jct chickenVidal Junction CA at the intersection of U.S. 95 and California Hwy 62, about 21 miles west of the Colorado River crossing to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. You can still see the chicken icon on the roof of a building that was once a restaurant, apparently years ago.

Vidal Jct store

The little convenience store at Vidal Junction CA. As this place is in the middle of nowhere, the management is able to get away with charging visitors for using the rest room unless they make a purchase. We made a purchase. Two small bags of chips and two small bottles of soda. Over seven dollars. Whew!

Brooklyn

BMT

YUMA, ARIZONA

I’m originally from New York City, where there are people who still talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were a major league baseball team that went all the way back to the nineteenth century, played at Ebbets Field in Flatbush and moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, two years before I was born. New Yorkers who remember are still bitter.

Even as a ghost of the past, the Brooklyn Dodgers remain an icon of that borough, as much as the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s hot dogs in Coney Island.

My parents are from the Bronx, and when I was six years old, we moved to the suburbs. So I’ve only visited Brooklyn a few times.

My first Brooklyn experience was at the age of ten or eleven, when my sisters and I rode there in the back seat of my father’s metallic blue Dodge Coronet. They were there to interview a woman who had applied to be a live-in maid in our home. My parents had busy professional lives and the three of us were a handful. We had a spare bedroom downstairs, near the garage, which we referred to as the “creep room.”

My parents never could bring themselves to hire a “creep.”

As an adult, I had a wild hair one day and decided to embark on the solo adventure of driving to the New York Aquarium in South Brooklyn. This involved about two hours of driving to Manhattan, then down the West Side Highway, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and all the way around the great western curve of the borough on the Belt Parkway. The killer whale was amazing.

My last time in Brooklyn was just before I moved to California, leaving New York for good. I attended an engagement party in Brighton Beach, making the long trek home in the middle of the night.

These days, I think of Brooklyn when I stop by the local Subway sandwich stop to pick up dinner on the way home from work. Subway has a sandwich called the BMT (not to be confused with a BLT, which they also sell), which is pepperoni, Genoa salami and Black Forest ham, topped with whatever veggies and dressings you want. Don’t ask me if it’s any good. I don’t eat meat.

I have to wonder how many of my fellow California and Arizona desert rats have any idea that the BMT, aside from being a sandwich, is the name of the Brooklyn subway line. Back east, the décor of every Subway sandwich shop location that I ever visited prominently featured a map of the New York subway system papered on its walls, from the IRT up in the Bronx, to the IND in Manhattan and the BMT in Brooklyn. I once remarked to my wife that the Subway in our little town lacks this New York memento. Au contraire, she responded. And sure enough, I discovered she was right. The pale yellow subway map wallpaper is so faded that I never noticed it until I stood right next to the wall and squinted. Only then was I able to make out the pale outlines of the J and Z lines to Utica Avenue and Broadway, and the D and M lines that rattle and hum all the way down to Coney Island.

When I lived in California’s Central Valley, I attended a synagogue where I occasionally heard the rabbi or his wife wax nostalgic about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park. These days, however, I don’t think about Brooklyn that much.

Last night, my wife and I were eating dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Yuma, Arizona. We struck up a conversation with the two women at the next table, who were accompanied by a little girl who was coughing her poor head off. One of the women went out to the car to get the kid’s inhaler.

Our neighbors explained that the girl has asthma, and that they had spent the day at the ball field where the dust had aggravated her condition. The three year old’s mother explained that she had planned to name the girl Olivia, but that when she was born, at the last moment she changed her mind and named her daughter Brooklyn.

I’ve heard of other people named Brooklyn, but the whole idea of naming one’s child after a New York City borough seems kind of goofy to me. Still, I suppose Brooklyn is a better baby name than Queens or the Bronx.

As for me, if I had a daughter, I think I’d name her Staten Island.