Recall

 

Saturday afternoon.  I am over in the next county sitting in the waiting room of a giant auto dealership, waiting for one of our cars to be serviced.  We have two vehicles, completely different models and manufacturers, but both have been subject to recalls in recent months.  Lacking a mechanical bone in my body, I don’t even try to understand what electronic thingamajig has to be replaced or adjusted to avoid having our vehicle go up in flames or self-destruct in some other equally dramatic fashion.  While I’m there, they can change the oil and check our alarm system that keeps going off, at least according to our landlord.

Funny thing about recalls.  It used to be that when a product was recalled, it meant that you could return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.  While this construct continues to apply to hummus, kids’ toys, power tools and gardening equipment, somehow the concept hasn’t caught on with big ticket items like automobiles.  Giving me my money back seems like a reasonable form of demonstrating contrition for screwing up.  I’m sure the dealership isn’t thrilled about having to conduct free repairs on hundreds of cars, but presumably they are being compensated by the manufacturer.  As for me, my Saturday is now shot and there is no compensation to be found.

They have the A/C cranking at the dealership and the waiting room is freezing.  My allergies, already having kicked into overdrive (gotta love springtime), decide to have a little party at my expense while I am a captive audience.  I’m glad I remembered to bring a handkerchief.

I brought a thick book with me, but rather than improving my mind, I am allowing it to turn to mush by messing around on my phone.  The place has wifi, so what the heck.  In walks a man and his developmentally disabled teenager, who sit across from me.  Every time I cough, the boy looks straight at me and asks “Are you alright?”  His father does not admonish him.  Perhaps I am nothing but an inveterate meanie (or just an incorrigible old fart), but my thoughts are not particularly charitable at this time.  About the third or fourth time that I cough and he asks the same question, I blurt out “Yes! Are you?”

Then my mother calls.  She wants to fill me in on the blow by blow of the Chabad Seder she attended on Monday evening.  This is followed by the details of the community Seder that my sister attended over in the Bay Area.  I should mention that I have very little contact with my sisters (believe me, it’s for the best), so Mom feels compelled to fill me in on the minutia of their lives.  I roll my eyes and say “yep,” “uh-huh,” “that’s good” and “wow!” in the appropriate places.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that specializes in outreach to Jews scattered all over the world, particularly those in remote locations where little or no Jewish life is available.  They encourage donations, but unlike other synagogues, never require anyone to pay anything to attend a Passover Seder in the spring or High Holy Day services in the fall.  Although I strongly disagree with many of their beliefs, I continue to support them and am proud of their inclusiveness in that they turn no one away, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, religious or secular, poor or rich, old or young.

I have attended several Chabad communal Seders with my parents, most recently last year.  My mother’s description of the disorganization, the bad food and the strange characters in attendance sounded exactly like what I remember.  She complained about the constant conversations that prevented her from hearing the rabbi and caused her to keep losing track of what blessing he was saying and what everyone was supposed to be eating at any particular point.  The Seder attended by my sister was no better.  Having had bariatric surgery (years ago now), she could not tolerate the food and kept having to leave the room to upchuck the bite or two she managed to get down.

I cough.  My mother asks if I have a cold.  The kid sitting across from me asks “Are you alright?”  Grrr!

My mother is fed up with the Chabad Seders but she says it’s better than sitting at home and having a Seder with just my father (who has no interest in anything religious).  However, she points out, my other sister (the one in Texas) did exactly that with her husband this year.  Instead of a big family celebration, it was just the two of them.  Next year, Mom tells me, she is making the Seder in her home.  I quickly check the date on my phone and find that it falls on a Friday night.  Yes!  I’ll be there, I tell her.  (And think to myself:  God willing.)

Who knows what will happen between this Passover and next?  Will I still be around?  Will both of my parents, who are in their eighties?  It occurs to me that it is not only cars that are recalled.

My mother and father begin arguing in the background.  He wants to go into town to do some shopping and she says no, it’s too late in the day already, she’s going to start dinner.  They can go tomorrow, she tells him.  No!  He doesn’t want to go tomorrow, he’s going to mow the lawn then.  Mom:  We can go before or after!  Dad:  No!  I’m too tired to go if I mow the lawn!  Mom: Okay, then we’ll go Monday!

These two have been arguing about everything for nearly 65 years.  I am amazed at how they have managed to stay together, particularly when I remember the knock-down, drag-out screaming matches they used to have when my sisters and I were kids.  The many fond memories I have of my childhood can never make up for that.  It doesn’t help that their current conduct reminds me of that past ugliness nearly every time I visit or talk with them on the phone.

And yet.  They’re my parents.  The ones who raised me.  The ones who put up with me when I was not at my finest.  And I know that they’re not going to be around forever.  I am getting old and am not in the best of health myself, so I have to laugh when I realize that I’m at the point of wondering who will go first, me or them.

Despite all I’ve been through, I know I will take it hard when they’re not around anymore.  By the same token, my father has let me know in no uncertain terms that he will never forgive me if I die before he does.  Note for a future post:  Do dead people need forgiveness?

I hope it is God’s will that we all make it long enough to attend that Seder together at my  parents’ house down in the Central Valley on March 30 of next year.  I plan to take the day off work and arrive the night before.  I can help make the sweet haroseth and then set the Seder plate by referring to the Hebrew embroidery on my grandmother’s matzah tosh (covering for the three pieces of ceremonial unleavened bread).

I tell Mom I have to hang up because the car is done.  The dealership tells me that I should replace my battery and air filter, that two of my running lights are out, and a couple of other things that sound like automotive Greek to me.  How much?  The guy punches numbers into a calculator and tells me it’ll be about $320.  Are you kidding, man?  I text my wife, who is up north with her family for Easter, to confirm that we’re not buying their bullshit.  Car guys, geez!  Shysters all, who live and die by the upsell.

I pay for the oil change and head for the door.  I cough.  “Are you alright?” says the kid, followed by an enthusiastic “bye!” as I walk out.

“Bye!” I respond.  “Have a great day!”

May all our recalls be of the automobile kind, fixable in an afternoon.

 

Is There a Maximum Driving Age?

My wife and I visited Florida in May and, as I recall from my experiences traveling there to visit my grandparents in the days of my youth, we noticed many senior citizens driving the highways and byways of Fort Lauderdale in their big boat cars.

The idea of the little old lady in the Crown Vic has become something of a joke, a stereotype that has a basis in fact.  Legend has it that driverless cars have been reported (in the days before Google) that turned out to have Grandma at the helm, now so shrunken that she could not be seen over the steering wheel.

At the time of her death, my grandmother, who lived to the age of 97, had not driven in well over twenty years, probably closer to thirty.  (Unless, that is, you count her oversized adult tricycle with ANN on the license plate.)  She didn’t really need to drive, as my grandfather took care of that all the way up to his death at the age of 82.  After that, Grandma pitched in a bunch of money so that she and her daughter could purchase a house.  Grandma had her own little wing with private bath and my aunt and her husband took up the driving duties.

My mother stopped driving about the time my parents retired and moved from New York to California, more than twenty years ago.  My father, who will turn 83 this fall, does all the driving.  He was a driver education teacher for 30 years and wouldn’t have it any other way.  He claims that spending his life driving was a curse wished upon him by his own father when, as a teenager, Dad was always taking his car.

Thankfully, my parents no longer make cross-country road trips as they did for years, particularly when my sister still lived in Boston.  Sis resides in Dallas these days.  After a few annual road trips to the Lone Star State, my parents gave it up in favor of flying.  It’s a real pain.  They drive three hours to San José, stay over in a hotel, pay to park their car, take the shuttle to the airport, wait forever at the TSA checkpoint, then hop the first leg of a flight that usually involves at least one change.  When they arrive at DFW, they have to rent a car so that they’re not stuck at my sister’s house with no escape for a week.  Still, it’s better than 23 hours of driving to Texas and then the same back to California.

My other sister lives in the Bay Area (except when she’s working out of state), and my parents usually make the six-hour round trip to visit her once or twice per month.  Three or four times each year, they drive up here to the Sacramento area to visit us, a nearly nine-hour round trip.  We live in two rooms and there is no place for anyone to stay over.  Rather than expending the money and effort of packing clothes and paying for a hotel, my parents treat it as a day trip.  More than once, my parents have mentioned that it’s more driving than they can safely do in a day.  Most of the time, we go there.  To be honest, however, we don’t go all that often.  We both work hard during the week and we prize our time off on the weekends.  Still, we made the drive to the Central Valley for Father’s Day in June and met my parents at my sister’s home in the Bay Area for my nephew’s birthday last weekend.  My parents will likely drive up for my wife’s birthday next month and we will spend several days there for the High Holy Days in October.

Needless to say, something has got to give.  My parents aren’t getting any younger.  I’ve expressed my concerns in this space on many occasions.  The fact that they live out in the boonies doesn’t help the situation.  When I ask my mother how they’ll take care of that big place when they’re 90, she admits that they won’t be able to do so.  Well, that’s seven years away.  For now, my parents are doing fairly well for their age.  However, I cannot escape the feeling that the future is now, just one phone call in the middle of the night away.  Along with a million other things, what will my mother do about driving when Dad is no longer around?  Will she suddenly begin driving again at the age of 90?  I mean, the minimum driving age in California is 16, but what is the maximum driving age?

Meanwhile, can I count on my father to stop driving when it’s no longer safe for him to do so?  I seriously doubt it.  His hearing is now considerably diminished and I can only hope that the manifestation of his road rage is limited to the stream of unprintable invective that streams from his mouth any time he objects to the actions of another driver.  My mother assures me that’s not the half of it.

How do you tell a parent that he or she shouldn’t drive anymore?  And what are the children supposed to do when driving is the only way the parents can get to the grocery store, to the doctor, to worship services or anywhere?  My father says that getting old is not for sissies.  But to leave elders as prisoners in their own homes seems like adding insult to injury.

My grandmother used to tell me that, in Broward County, Florida, anyone over the age of 70 who surrendered his or her driver’s license would be given a free bus pass.  But when you live out in the country, it’s not like you can just walk to the corner and wait for the bus.  If we’re lucky, perhaps my mother will go live with my sister when the time comes.  But what about in the meantime?  Will my father continue to drive until he has a serious accident?  Remember, no driving means no independence (at least in rural California it does).

I read an article today about how to get your elderly parents to stop driving.  To me, the suggestions are nothing short of despicable.  To wit:

  • Contact your parents’ auto insurance agency and get them to cancel their policy. (So now I’m supposed to turn informant on my folks?  Wait, wasn’t that what the Nazis encouraged kids to do?)
  • Place an anti-theft club on the steering wheel of your parents’ car. (They already use one.)
  • Move the seat all the way forward so your elderly parent can’t get into the car and sit down. (Fortunately, my parents still have all their marbles and know quite well how to adjust the seat.  Umm, I think.)
  • Remove the distributor cap and tell your parents that their car can’t be driven because it won’t pass smog. (If you don’t live in California, you can’t appreciate the headache of the infamous smog test.)  (My father can take a car apart and put it together again.  I know because he’s done it.  Exhibit A is the perfectly running Model T Ford sitting in his garage.  He takes it out for rides periodically.)
  • Simply sell their car! (Someone explain this one to me, please.  How exactly does one sell something that belongs to someone else?  Wait, isn’t there something in the California Criminal Code about that?)

Tell me that people haven’t lost their minds.  Please.

 

Broke but Out of Debt

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I was depressed because we have so little money.  Yes, I am, I told her.

As Tevye the milkman pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no crime to be poor.  I do believe that it’s possible to be both poor and happy, particularly if you appreciate the things you do have and value your family and friends.

The real thing that’s depressing me is the Infinite Loop of Poverty.  I feel like a modern day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down so that we have to do it all over again.

All of this was triggered when we decided to purchase a car last week.  Not even a new car, mind you.  A low mileage used vehicle is all we could manage without going deeply into debt.  Which is the point, I suppose:  We may not have any money, but at least we’ve managed to stay debt-free.

This wasn’t always the case.  When my wife and I got married 17 years ago, we had a lot of debt between us.  With two (small) incomes, we worked assiduously to overcome this problem.  It took a lot of years, but all the credit card debt and most of the student loans were paid off.  I am proud of this, particularly since I suffered two year-long stints of unemployment in the interim and my wife worked part-time for a few years and not at all for another four years.

And so I say to those of you who think you are stuck in debt forever that there is hope.  It requires dedication, however, including paying down debts first thing out of every paycheck regardless of what you’d really like to spend the money on.  Whatever that may be, it’s probably not as important as watching that big number that you owe get lower and lower.

I am fortunate that my wife is so good with money.  I don’t do well with numbers and would rather have someone else think about what has to be paid and when.  I suppose this goes back to my childhood, as my parents did not believe in giving “allowances” or in encouraging budgeting and planning.  If they thought we needed something, they’d buy it.  Otherwise, they’d rather that we didn’t have any of their hard-earned money so that we couldn’t waste it on frivolity.

In my young adulthood, the result of this was not pretty.  If my father visited me at college and handed be a twenty, likely as not it would be gone the same day.  When I began working, I still lived at home and treated money cavalierly; gosh, I’d get another paycheck the next week, so what was the big deal?  I spent it as quickly as I earned it.

All my life, the place where this came back to bite me was cars.  Transportation was my bête noire, my Kryptonite, my undoing.  I’d use my tax refund to pay my auto insurance.  I’d fill up my tank every time I was paid.  But the moment something went wrong with the car and I needed a couple thousand dollars to make things right, I was in deep trouble.  My father generously purchased a series of high-mileage clunkers for me, none of which lasted very long.  When I saved for a new car, my father generously put up some of the cash, or it never would have happened.

Then my parents began giving me their old car each time they purchased a new one.  They took very good care of their vehicles, so I knew I’d be in good shape for a few years.  One of those cars was wrecked when an old lady ran into me on the way home from work one night.  Another was wrecked by my young niece when we lent it out to her.  Another had to be sold when it’s engine was about to go, and yet another was a trade-in on the old Cash for Clunkers program.

After owning two cars free and clear for a couple of years, we decided to buy a new vehicle even though we had to finance it.  We made some very large monthly payments and eventually paid it off.  Now, however, it has well over 150,000 miles on it and little things started going wrong with it.  We finally decided to give it to our niece (not the one who wrecked our former vehicle, leaving us with just one car between us ever since), who was desperately in need of vehicle, and to pay cash for a used car for ourselves.

The only problem is that avoiding the interest payments associated with financing meant spending just about all our savings.  Hence, my feelings of depression.  I must have a car in order to get to work every day.  Once there, I work and work to save enough so that we can spend it all to buy another car so that I continue to get to work to make more money to buy another car.  It seems to be an endless cycle, which might not be a big deal to a 25 year old, but takes on quite a different meaning to one who is rapidly approaching retirement age.  The only way out of this loop is to earn significantly more money or to up the ante on savings.  Yes, I do think that saving money faster than you use up your car is the only real answer.

Still, I am grateful that I have once more managed to escape the millstone of monthly car payments with which so many others are saddled.  As Dave Ramsey points out on his radio show, taking the scissors to that albatross around one’s neck is a significant step toward financial independence.

Just don’t ask me for money.  I don’t have any.

 

36 Miles

sunrise

Sunrise on the way to work (before the time change)

For seven years, I lived within walking distance of my place of employment.  When we moved to Fresno, and again when I was hired to work out in the middle of the desert, we rented the closest house or apartment to my job that we could find at a reasonable price.  Although I didn’t walk to work due to health problems, the duration of my morning drive was typically two to three minutes door to door.  I now realize just how spoiled I was!

It would be an understatement to say that becoming a commuter has constituted a bit of a change.  Instead of living around the corner from work, I now spend a significant portion of my waking hours on the 70, the 99 and the 5.  (If you’re not from California, you may find it strange that we place the word “the” before our road names.  And don’t call them “route numbers.”  Those are freeways, pardner.)

On weekdays, my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 3:45 a.m.  To ensure arrival at work prior to my scheduled starting time of 8:00, I have to be out the door no later than 6:45.  This gives me three hours to get ready.  Now, that may seem crazy to you, but I am not what you would, by any stretch of the imagination, consider normal (at least not in the morning).  I am so sluggish in the morning that it takes me forever to get going.  I am by nature a night person.  I enjoy going to bed at about the time the sun rises.  Mornings are just not my thing.  After nearly a year of unemployment, however, flexibility has become the name of the game.  I am more than willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary to bring home a paycheck and keep the bills current.

Typically, the drive into downtown Sacramento takes 40 to 45 minutes during the morning rush.  It’s only a matter of 36 miles.  When the traffic gets gnarly, however, all bets are off.  The trip can take an hour and a half.  You simply have to leave early because you never know what nightmare you may encounter en route.  A few weeks ago, for example, there was the Monday morning when a driver decided it might be a good idea to make an illegal U-turn through the median strip while traffic whizzed by at 70 miles per hour.  The poor man paid for that error in judgment with his life.  Between the emergency response vehicles, the wreckers hauling away mangled vehicles and the looky-loos, traffic came to a dead stop.  By chance, we happened to leave early that day and I managed to (barely) make it to work on time.

I say “we” because I am extraordinarily blessed to have my wife drive me to work every day.  There is simply no parking to be had in downtown Sacramento unless you pay the monthly fee to leave your car in a garage or lot.  Many employees take the bus or the light rail to work, and the nearest stop is only a few blocks away.  When walking is a challenge bordering on impossibility, however, you’re pretty much out of luck (unless you arrive at 5 a.m. to grab a space on the street where you can use your handicapped parking permit).  So my wife drives me to work in the morning, drives home and then makes the same round trip all over again in the afternoon.  That’s 144 miles that we put on our car every day, Monday through Friday.  At this rate, we are going to kill our high mileage vehicle in short order.

So far, we have had to replace the front brakes, replace two of the belts, have the tires realigned and change the oil twice.  That’s in less than two month’s time.

And that’s not to mention the wear and tear on my wife.  Her devotion is just one of the hundreds of reasons that she is so precious to me.  I thank her regularly and profusely, but there are some gifts for which even hundreds of sincere expressions of thanks are inadequate.

Come pay day, of course, both of us are thankful.

NoCal road warriors, over and out.

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NaNoPoblano

Two Cars

We’ve always been a two-car couple.  His ‘n hers vehicles just seemed natural.  My wife would go to her job, I would go to my job.  On the weekends, we could each run our own errands.  If one of us had someone to visit or an event to attend, the other wouldn’t be left with the choice of tagging along or sitting at home.

This all came to a, shall we say “crashing” halt some months ago when my teenaged niece managed to wreck my vehicle.  We’ve been down to one car for a while now, and it’s actually starting to feel normal.  My poor wife definitely has the raw end of the deal, as she gets to ferry me through rush hour traffic back and forth to work in Sacramento every weekday.

Although we have found that we can get along just fine with one vehicle, I can’t help but look back fondly on the days when we lived in Fresno and owned two fully paid for cars.  My wife purchased her car long before we were married and, through careful maintenance and mostly local driving, made it last for years and years.  As for my car, well, I had the good fortune to obtain it at no charge, thanks to the generosity of my parents.  For decades, they would buy a new car every four or five years and would give me their old vehicle rather than trading it in.  For a long time, I was totally broke and this was the only thing that made it possible for me to have a car, and by extension (this being California), to have a job.  So my wife and I rolled along in the marital bliss that comes with not having to factor a car payment into the monthly budget.

As for our two vehicles, they were as different as night and day.  Women may be from Venus and men may be from Mars, but the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our cars.

My wife had a little economy car known as a Nissan; I had a big bomber called a Tishrei.

If I had my druthers, I’d pass over the opportunity to buy a Nissan.  It’s a crumby vehicle, but what can you expect will all that matzo?  One thing I can say is that it got good gas mileage.  We hardly ever got gas at all.  In fact, you could even say the thing was constipated.  The owner’s manual (for some reason the cover says “Hagaddah Shel Pesach”) guaranteed it to be 100% hametz-free.

We only had to fill up the Nissan every eight days, but it was rather finicky.  The engine wouldn’t run efficiently unless we used a high test called Malaga, and we’d have to throw in an additive, one part horseradish to two parts haroseth.  As the Nissan aged, it developed a rattle in the chassis, which (thankfully) could be relieved by cracking open the driver’s side door for Elijah.  Eventually, we began detecting an unsavory odor emanating from under the hood.  I thought it smelled like eggs, but my wife seemed to think it smelled more like a burning shank bone.  If we left a pan of salt water on the radiator, the odor would dissipate after a little while.  We’d use any excuse to blow the Nissan’s horn, which sounded a funky little tune that sounded for all the world like mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh.

In the end, we were just counting the days of the Omer til we could get rid of the Nissan.  If only we had some bread, man.

The Tishrei was another story entirely.  Everything about this car was enormous:  The cabin, the trunk, the gas tank.  It was like you could fit Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in there, and still have room for Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  Every time we filled it up we’d spend at least 50 bucks.

When my parents first gave us the Tishrei, it was early in September.  It was a cool color, kind of reddish brown, like apples and honey or something.  We had to go to the Bay Area to pick it up, because they had left it at the airport when they flew to visit my sister in Texas for the High Holy Days.  There they would buy their new car, a Heshvan, and drive it back to California.

With all the luggage room, this car was great for going on road trips.  And we’d go on a lot of them in the Tishrei, mostly to synagogue.  But the Tishrei was already a high mileage vehicle, and it didn’t take long before it started to develop a lot of problems.  It was always something.  One day it would be shaking like a lulav and the next day it would start emanating a sour lemon odor (it was actually citron, we learned later).  And (I must confess), a lot of the problem could be attributed to the error of my ways.  Every time I got in that Tishrei, something came over me.  It was like I couldn’t help myself.  Maybe it was that new year smell, but I felt the urge to drive fast.  And, oh baby, that thing could move.  I’d step on the gas and be halfway from Tzom Gedaliah to Chol Hamo’ed before I could say “Tashlich.”  Yes, we had a lot of fun in the Tishrei, so it was hard not to forgive its sins.

And we loved to blow the Tishrei’s horn even more than the Nissan’s.  The looks on people’s faces were priceless when they suddenly heard a blast of “Tekiyaaaahhhh!”

About Uncle Guacamole

Uncle Guacamole is a Borscht Belt comedian who still thinks it’s 1963.  Although a transplant to northern California, he left his heart at Grossinger’s midnight buffet.  His dream is to buy a kochaleyn in Loch Sheldrake, drive to Monticello to shop the outlets on Sundays and play the Concord for all eight nights of Passover.  Please don’t tell him that the Catskill comedy scene went the way of vaudeville forty years ago.  You might make him cry.

Uncle Guacamole can often be seen driving Highway 99, which he calls the Quickway, on the way to the abandoned site of Mammoth Orange, which for some inexplicable reason he refers to as “The Red Apple.”  He is still searching for Wurtsboro Hill and wondering when the land became so flat.  Although he is a big fan of schmaltzy jokes and bad puns, please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes at him.  (If you do, he’ll just break out the jalapeños and make salsa.)  Throwing avocados, however, is perfectly okay, particularly if they are ripe.  At nearly a dollar apiece, he can’t afford to buy them anymore and is going through guacamole withdrawals.  These are marked by profuse sweating of garlic and lemon juice followed by fits of uncontrollable shaking known as the “Oy Veys.”

Remember That Car You Used to Have?

My first new car, purchased with savings from my first real job (working the night shift for minimum wage doesn’t count) and help from Dad, was a 1984 Pontiac Bonneville.  Two-tone green.  Racing stripe right down the middle of that baby.  Faux wood grain dash.  Cassette deck.  I thought I was hot shit.

My sister, who had just graduated from college, bought her first new car right about the same time.  Hers was a shiny red Dodge.  She wanted four on the floor and air conditioning.  I wanted an automatic and was unwilling to pay for air conditioning.  Both vehicles had to be special ordered.

As my vehicle arrived first, I loaned my brand new car out to Sis on a few occasions so that she was not stuck at home all the time.  Following one such occasion, I told her about a dream I had.  In the dream, my sister walked in the door and handed me a curious looking item that I was unable to identify.  “What’s this?” I asked.  “Remember that car you used to have?” she asked.  “This is what’s left of it.”  And just before I woke up, I recognized two small lines that may once have been green racing stripes.

My sister, ever the good sport, was able to laugh about this.  Truth is that she is an excellent driver and that I never had anything to worry about.  Mean Green Bonny lived a good long life and finally gave up the ghost after three long years of ferrying me back and forth between law school in Massachusetts and home in New York.

But today, it is with sadness that I announce the demise of my current vehicle, a thirteen year old Mercury Grand Marquis. Once my parents’ car, it was passed on to us after having acquired more than 100,000 miles in the course of being driven across the country on several occasions.  Just as many people as admired my wife’s Kia made fun of the Mercury.  It looks like an old grandpa’s car.  Hey, why are you driving a cop car?

But good old Whitey II served me faithfully for more than four years.  With over 160,000 miles on the engine, it still could haul up the Grapevine with the air conditioning blasting.  It survived three years in the desert, by which I mean three years of being parked on the street in the searing 120°F heat, being repeatedly dusted by blowing sand.

Yes, there was a Whitey I, my late vehicle’s predecessor.  Another white Mercury, we parted ways when it was given over to be crushed and destroyed in the “cash for clunkers” program, which helped us to purchase the Kia.

As for Whitey II, we took good care of it, hoping it would last us a good long while.  We had it serviced regularly – oil, tires, brakes, the works.  Alas, all good things come to an end, the best laid plans of mice and men notwithstanding.

Shortly after I was laid off from my job at the end of September, we left the desert and moved in with family in rural northern California.  My niece, who had just started community college, was struggling with bumming rides to class.  She was able to buy an old hoopdie that had two strikes against it:  It was on its last legs and my teenaged niece didn’t take care of it.  Without a father to teach her the rudiments of automobile maintenance, what can you expect?

As I have been unemployed for quite a while now, we saw no reason not to lend Whitey II out to my niece so that she could get back and forth to classes.  I’d rather not know all the gory details of how my poor Mercury met its demise, but I hear it has something to do with the car in front of it stopping while Whitey just kept right on going.  Crunch!

You will be missed, Whitey.  I am sorry that I didn’t take you through the car wash a little more often and that I took you for granted all those years of driving me back and forth to work every day.

Well done, faithful servant.  Well done.

 

On the Road: TPMS, a Wet Carpet and a Fake Tornado

Northern California to Southern California.  Wobbling down the I-5.

A three-day turnaround and we’re back at the motel in Buttonwillow again.  When the servers at a Denny’s 300 miles from home recognize you, you know you’ve done this trip a few too many times.  My horse ought to know the way home by now.

Unfortunately, the ol’ pony developed a little blacksmithing problem the second day down the trail.  Now, it isn’t as if we don’t take care of our trusty steed.  With the amount of driving we’ve been doing, we take it in to the local dealer for maintenance nearly every month.  The last time around, we were assured that the tires still have a good five thousand miles on them.

Perhaps the traction control system indicator light should have been a clue.  You know, the one that looks like little skid marks.  Finding nothing wrong, our local Ford dealer reset the indicator lamp.  Then it came on again and was reset again.  But like the cat who came back the very next day or some sort of electronic jack-in-the-box, it’s just a matter of time before the light comes on again.  As maddeningly frustrating as this situation is, we’ve learned to live with it.  But when, while whizzing down the back side of the Grapevine at 70 mph, the TPMS light came on to join its comrade in arms, we knew we were in trouble.

“What the heck is TPMS?” my wife asked, “tire pressure means shit?”  Pretty much, my dear, pretty much.

In the name of full disclosure, let me say that I know exactly zero about cars or their internal workings.  I drive it, I take it in for maintenance, and when it breaks down, I get it repaired.  And I pay for it every month.  That’s about it.  I wouldn’t know the difference between the guts of a car and the guts of a pig.  You get the picture.  As far as I’m concerned, TP is toilet paper and MS is either a manuscript or multiple sclerosis. Our owner’s manual, however, insists that these initials stand for something called a “tire pressure management system.” Whatever that is.

We took the next exit and pulled into a service station/espresso shop in Castaic.  My wife aired up the tires (the guy at the station was a good egg who turned on the air pump without making us deposit endless quarters) and we prepared to hit the road.  As we were about to pull out of the lot, she asked me to get out and check the front passenger side tire.

“Ssssssssss!”  Uh-oh.  That is not a good sound, not at all.  Not only did the tire appear as low as it was before it was aired up, the telltale noise indicated that it had sprung a leak, and not a slow one either.  Time to pull into a spot out of the way and call Triple A.

The idea was that we’d use our AAA roadside service and someone would come out to loosen the lugs, remove the tire and put on the spare.  I provided the exact address and cross streets of our location; the helpful call center lady informed me that someone would be along within the next 40 minutes.  Should we keep you updated by text or by phone?  Text, please.

Outdoor temperature:  109 degrees.  We had plenty of gas, so we kept the engine running and blasted the A/C.  We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and we were getting hungry.  10 minutes.  20 minutes.  Half an hour.  Do they have to use up the entire forty minutes?  After waiting 38 minutes, I receive a call (not a text).  The tire guy is just a mile away giving someone a jump.  He should be there within ten minutes.  We rolled our eyes.  Ten minutes later:  No tire guy.  15 minutes.  20 minutes.  Oh, here he comes.

“Do we have a regular sized spare or just one of those little donuts?”  I asked my wife.  “The donut,” she reassured me.  Unless we’re talking about maple bars and Boston crème, I knew we were in trouble.  Tire Guy confirmed my worst fears.

“Where you headed?” he asked.  “Indio.”

“Well, this tire will take you about 100 to 200 miles, but you can’t do more than 50 to 55 miles per hour.”

At that rate, it would take us more than four hours to get to our hotel.  Oh well, we can get the tire replaced in the morning.  Our priority:  Food. 

As we lunched in Santa Clarita, we realized that this was not going to work.  Hobbling along in the slow lane while tractor trailers whizz past us doing seventy?  We knew we’d have to get the tire replaced right where we were.  Anyone around who would like to sell and install a tire on a Sunday afternoon?  A few calls and we found a local Firestone dealer who could do it if we got over there in the next hour.

The tire shop recommended replacing all four tires.  We were planning on doing this a few thousand miles down the road anyway, so we asked the young man to write us a quote.  We gulped when we saw the numbers.  They had the right model tires on hand, but with installation and alignment, the total was just shy of a thousand dollars.  Can you say “unanticipated, unavoidable expense?”

After an hour and a half of sitting in the waiting room watching the Back to the Future movies, we were finally on our way.  Now, we typically stay at the cheapest motel available in a convenient location.  But this time, we decided to treat ourselves to one night in a suite at a more upscale hotel that we had visited on business several years ago.  We had planned to arrive well before dinner so that we could enjoy the facilities for several hours.  Instead, we hit town at 10 pm and went to sleep immediately.

Well, not exactly immediately.  The living room and the kitchen of the suite were lovely, but for some odd reason, the carpet in the bedroom was damp.  And what was that trickling of water that kept waking us up?  It seemed to emanate from the air conditioning unit.  Condensation maybe?  Next thing we knew, the carpet was positively sopping, and it stank.  But still we couldn’t see any water, only hear it.  We called the front desk and they offered to have us change rooms.  By now it was midnight, we had already unpacked, and I had to work in the morning.  So we politely declined.

After my wife dropped me off at work, she returned to the hotel and had a little chat with the manager.  We ought to have at least a few dollars taken off of our bill, she suggested.  To our pleasant surprise, the hotel completely comped the room.  Now that’s what I call class.  You know we’ll be back.

A day of work out of town was followed by the last leg of our trip, the drive across the desert.  As I hit the freeway, the gathering clouds began to look positively menacing.  Half an hour down the road, the billowing fluffies turned black and the first spattering of drops began.  What scared the heck out of me was that, not too far in the distance, the dark clouds seemed to be pulled straight down to the earth in the shape of the infamous funnel.  By now, it was pouring and I had the wipers working overtime.  Thirty more miles to go.  Could I outrun a tornado?  Not a chance.  Dear Lord, please grant us traveling mercies and get me the hell out of here before our SUV gets blown into a cactus.

Donna pointed out that I was overreacting.  The cloud wasn’t moving, so it couldn’t be a twister.

I am happy to say that we arrived home in one piece, if a bit lighter in the wallet.  Even better, we don’t have to make this trip again for another three weeks.  By then, I know, I’ll be itching to hit the road again.