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/

 

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On the Road: Stuck in the Zip Code Twilight Zone, Playing Double Dutch on the Freeway and Doing the Greasy

Southern California to Northern California.  Two (stuffed) cars are better than one.

From personal experience, the following is my advice on moving from one part of the state to another when said move involves packed-to-the-brim vehicles and many hundreds of miles of freeway driving:

  1. If clothes, furnishings and household utensils extend halfway up your rear window, you will be able to see only the roof of the little foreign car tailgating you for twenty miles or so.  How does that old saying go again?  If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.
  2. When driving an overloaded vehicle, never play leapfrog with a yellow Penske van driven by a maniacal SOB who would just love to see you careen off the freeway into a ditch at 70 miles per hour.
  3. Consider investing in a bumper sticker bearing the logo: “I’ve just been laid off and I’m moving in with my mother-in-law.  Go ahead, make my day.”
  4. The right side view mirror is your friend, particularly if that end of your rear window is blocked by the upended legs of a chair or table and a pile of blankets and pillows.  When passing a vehicle on the interstate, it really is necessary to check said mirror before pulling back into the right hand lane.  Trust me on this one.
  5. Never, ever agree to follow anyone or to have anyone follow you for more than 500 miles.  Particularly if the anyone is your wife.

Having turned in the keys to our rental house on Thursday (my last day of work), we spent a night in a motel and hit the road at six o’clock Friday morning.  Both cars were packed to within an inch of their sorry automotive lives, including the trunk, the back seat, the floorboards and the passenger seat.  Just enough room for the driver remained.  Northward ho!

My wife followed me as we trekked across the desert from the Arizona border to Coachella, our first refueling stop.  We stopped on opposite sides of the same gas pump, with the idea that we’d fill one vehicle and then pass the nozzle over to fill the other one, all on the same credit card receipt.  This should be a snap, I thought, and we’ll be off in a jiffy.  What I forgot is that nothing ever goes smoothly when you’re traveling.

These days, most gas pumps in California require the purchaser to key in his or her billing zip code after swiping a credit card.  Having updated our records with the credit card company, I input our new zip code.  Incorrect.  Alrighty then, let’s try the zip code we just left an hour and a half ago.  Incorrect.  (Sigh.)  Let’s go back to the new zip code, keying it very carefully, one digit at a time.

DENIED, flashed the display.

What do you mean, “denied?”  It can’t be denied!  We have used this same credit card forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but at least since our credit card number was stolen the last time we moved.  It seems we had entered the Twilight Zone, a strange purgatory between zip codes where matter and anti-matter collide and you simply cease to exist.

Now what?  Fortunately, we had cash on us.  But I was stewing.  This sort of petty inconvenience gets me riled up way beyond anything remotely warranted.  And then I went inside the truck stop to use the rest room, only to find that every single stall in the men’s room was occupied.  All six of them.  What the hell?  Have I stumbled upon a pooping convention?  Or has every traveler on the I-10, in some cosmic coincidence, chosen this exact moment to take a dump?  I really, really wanted to say bad words.  Instead, I got back in the Mercury and roared over the San Gorgonio Pass on the way to our prearranged breakfast stop in Calimesa.

I had suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy, although I couldn’t remember exactly which exit to take.  “I think it’s County Line Road,” said my wife the previous night.  “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?”

Of course I didn’t look it up on my phone.  And of course County Line Road was not the correct exit.

What we needed was the exit before County Line Road.  My wife figured this out easily, but I, being thick in the brain, did not.  She zoomed ahead of me and exited at County Line Road while I followed her back onto the eastbound freeway to backtrack to our correct exit.

Now it was her turn to fume.  “Didn’t you see the huge sign?” she demanded.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear me honking and honking?”

With the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing and Rod Stewart serenading me through my iPod?  Not a chance.

At least we lucked out with a fabulous breakfast.  Big Boy’s breakfast buffet was as good as I remembered it from back east, with bacon and sausage for my wife and oatmeal, fruit and home fried potatoes for me.

We agreed to gas up before hitting the freeway again.  Now, one would think that I could successfully follow another vehicle less than a mile to a filling station.  No such luck.  This is me we’re talking about, remember.  Mr. Thick.

Somehow, I didn’t see where my wife turned off, and then missed the gas station as I drove right by it.  After driving a couple of miles down the road, I realized that I must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  I pulled into Del Taco and checked my phone.  Sure enough, she had texted me.  “You missed the gas station.”

“Going back now,” I responded, backtracking and, miraculously, noticing the big Arco sign this time around.

“Clearly, this is not working!” my wife exclaimed as I pulled up to the pumps.  She was spitting mad.

And indeed, clearly it was not.  As the saying goes:  “Do not lead, as I may not follow.  Do not follow, as I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend.”  If you can figure out how this applies to doing the double dutch down the freeway, by all means let me know.

I actually managed to successfully follow my wife about 90 miles down the 210 through Pasadena and onto the I-5, stopping only once to switch cars when my leg was cramping so badly that I could barely lift it to the brake pedal.  You should know that the I-5 interchange involves six lanes of traffic and the Highway 14 split.  So I promptly lost sight of my wife again.  And caught up with her just as she was exiting at Newhall.  Now, I had a feeling she might stop at Newhall, as we have stopped there many times before and it is one of the last decent stopping places before heading over the Grapevine.  The only problem was that I didn’t actually see my wife get off the freeway and, fortunately for me, just caught a glimpse of her car at the very last second that I could turn the wheel without missing the exit entirely.

From Newhall, we chugged over the ‘vine and into our regular overnight rest stop in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  “See if you can get a room in the front,” my wife asked as I prepared to go in and register.  “Hurry!” she added, as she saw another guest coming from behind — another guest who might take the last room in the front.  I rushed over to the door and, pulling it open, realized that I had just entered the laundry area.  The other door, behind me, was the door to the registration area, that is, the area where the other guest was busily paying for her room at the counter.  “Face it,” I thought, “I can’t do anything right.”  I feel a deep, abiding kinship with Charlie Brown.  (Although, so far, no one has called me a blockhead.  Wishy-washy, maybe.)

The importance of renting a motel room in the front of the property is twofold:  First, you want to avoid having to drag your suitcases down an exterior corridor or over the grassy area by the pool.  Second, when you are traveling with two loaded-down cars, it is helpful to be able to see them directly outside your window so that when some miscreant breaks into them in the middle of the night, at least you can dial 911 and yell “help, help, oh help” while the thief makes off with all your possessions.  We didn’t really need all that old stuff anyway, now did we?

When the woman who hurried in front of me to the registration desk finally finished, I shuffled up to the clerk to learn that there was exactly one room left unrented in the front of the property.  But it was a smoking room (choke, gag).  I texted my wife to see whether she wanted the smoking room.  “Sure,” came back the reply.

Suffice it to say that we did indeed choke and gag for most of the night.  We borrowed some air freshener from the front desk, but it didn’t really help very much.  The smoke just seeps into your lungs, your hair and your clothes.  And although no one broke into our cars, we both wished we had taken a room in the back and bump-bump-bumped the suitcases over the lawn by the pool (particularly when the air conditioning quit on us about midnight).

Then came the matter of dinner.  We saw a barbecue joint, an Indian restaurant that received poor reviews online, a plethora of fast food establishments and Denny’s.  We settled for Denny’s, having visited this particular location on many occasions and having been impressed by their excellent service.  For road food, Denny’s is actually fairly dependable.

Except not this time.  My wife ordered bacon and toast.  Her toast was actually cold.  “Now, how can you mess up toast?” you may ask.  Leave it to Denny’s, they managed.  My wife is generally reluctant to send any dish back to the kitchen, no matter how bad it is.  After all, we’ve read the horror stories about how such dishes are, shall we say “adulterated,” before being returned to the table.  But this time, the toast was so inedible that my wife did send it back.  Did they prepare her a new order of toast?  Heck, no!  They simply warmed it up and brought it back out.

As for her bacon, she had ordered it done crispy.  Instead it came out done greasy.  Greasy and inedible.

So much for depending on Denny’s (although I must say that my veggie burger and six little pieces of broccoli were excellent).

In the morning, we headed into the home stretch, driving more than two hours down the road before stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in Santa Nella, Merced County.  We stopped here for dinner recently and were singularly unimpressed.  For the sake of convenience, however, we decided to give their breakfast a chance.  Their breakfast buffet was actually not bad at all.

As it was late in the morning when we arrived, the staff was just starting to put out the salad bar for lunch.  We asked whether salad was included with the breakfast buffet and were told no, only the soup was included.  Say what?  Perhaps the waitress didn’t know what she was talking about.  After all, we heard her telling diners at a nearby table that she had worked at this truck stop for 41 years.  “It’s time for her to retire,” I told my wife.  And I believe she did just that.  Once she took our order and wrote up a sales slip for two buffets, we never saw her again.  We had to shanghai other staff members to refill our beverages.

If you follow this blog, you may recognize this truck stop as the place where I recently engaged in a Spanglish conversation with the nice (impatient) janitor lady through the stall door.  This time, there was no janitor in evidence, but the only stall available (unlike Coachella, at least there was one) had a broken lock.  I am pleased to report that only two gentlemen walked in on me while I was taking a crap.  The older one seemed slightly embarrassed and reached in to close the stall door behind him.  The younger guy just seemed pissed off.  Hey, this is not exactly my cup of tea either, young dude.  Do you think I enjoy showing off my fat butt to total strangers at a truck stop on the I-5?

We arrived safe and sound in our new home in northern California, just in time to gather with family and friends to celebrate my niece’s seventeenth birthday.  It only took us a day and a half to get both cars completely unloaded, although the house is still a mess of half-empty boxes and clothes strewn every which way.  But we were both very glad to finally get off the road.

For a few days, anyway.  Tuesday we head back to southern California.  Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up and down the I-5.