Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My life experienced as a sequence of cars

 In 1981, as soon as I was old enough, I took my driver’s test in a ‘64 sky blue Ford Falcon – a three-speed column shift.  The sedan had belonged to my great aunt Ann, who never drove it much.  I failed magnificently the first test - mis-releasing the clutch, bunny-hopping into the driving course’s little fake intersection and stalling out. 

The first car I actually owned outright was a red-orange Ford Maverick that my grandmother had accepted to settle some debt at the general store.  I bought it from her for something under $300.  I got a year or so’s worth out of it, but when it threatened to start sucking me dry with repair bills – I sold it to someone I can’t remember for the same amount I’d paid for it.  Caveat emptor.

So the family Falcon served until the fall of 1983, when I went off to college in Philadelphia, where it made no sense to have a car. 

(In fact, the only time I had wheels in Philly was 1987, when I was the founding field manager for PA PIRG’s fund-raising canvas, and had a company rental car to tool around in in my free time, which meant whenever we weren’t canvassing, sleeping or drinking pitchers of Yuengling porter at McGlintchy’s – which meant pretty much never.  I ruined three of those cars – all in the line of duty.  Over the course of a week, the first car gradually developed an acrid burning smell and fewer and fewer gears, until it had no gears at all and I had to call a tow truck.  A second car I just outright wrecked (possibly running a red light, though I don’t remember any light at all).  I got T-boned by a heavy steel van, which reduced one of my more fragile canvassers to tears and a week of hypochondria.  Within the week, the replacement had the window shot out as we drove through suburban Ardmore.  Probably a BB-gun, since we’d have noticed a bullet I think.  That last one was kind of a relief because I’d destroyed the rubber seals on that window breaking in with a coat hanger.  And since my boss happened to be in the passenger’s seat when all the shattered glass fell into his lap, it was pretty clear I couldn’t be blamed for that one . . . )

Anyhow, by the time the car had been returned with a hundred unpaid parking tickets, I had left Philadelphia and moved to central Massachusetts in pursuit of an Englishwoman I was in love with.  I got by with my old silver Motebecane Mirage bicycle – and hitchhiking.

A few months later, after things had blown up with the Englishwoman, I was in the Poconos helping my grandmother with the store.   At the end of the winter, as a thank you, she sent me off with a ‘78 Chrysler LeBaron that had belonged to her boyfriend Stan.  It was maroon and silver land yacht that drank gas like a sailor and I put a million miles on it driving around the US and Canada as though it were Belgium.   At the end of summer 1990, I sold it to a fearless guy in Eugene Oregon for $175 because the chassis was apparently ‘soft’ and the mechanic seemed legitimately concerned for my life.  

As mentioned earlier, I got by in San Diego with that Motebecane, but after a year of it I bought a sooty yellow Rabbit diesel with 150,000 miles on it for $500.  A previous owner had welded in a second gas tank and with the full twenty gallons you could drive 800 miles between fill-ups.  This was the car I was driving in the days when I met Monica, which demonstrates her shining ability to see past an unpromising first impression.  (She was getting around on a red Kawasaki motorcycle at the time.)  The car survived to some point in 1995, but I had left it at my father’s while we were in Kazakhstan for a couple of years and he got tired of being saddled with a sooty decrepit Rabbit as a driveway ornament and sent it off to the junkyard.  I can’t blame him, since by then one of the doors wouldn't open and I was the only one who could coax it into life in anything below 50 degree weather.  (A rolling start always helped, but my father wasn’t that motivated.)

In 1996 my grandfather was upgrading his car and unloaded a Ford Fairlane on us, behind whose solid steel bumper Monica gained her first experiences with Pennsylvania black ice – taking out both a stop sign (no harm) and a pine tree (yeah, some harm).  But the old Fairlane took us back to San Diego.  Before it could fail its inaugural emissions test we traded it in, buying a near-new ‘97 Saturn station wagon, which at $12,000 was 24 times more than either of us had ever paid for a car. 

We crossed to the new millennium with two nearly new cars – the Saturn and a ’95 Jeep Wrangler, which was named Wilhemina.  She was sold a couple of years later while we were living in Ireland where for three years I drove an anonymous rented Vauxhall with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

The Saturn persisted through all of this as this time my father didn’t send the car to the junkyard.  When we moved to Rhode Island with our now eight-year old Saturn, I said to myself, we need to go shopping for a second car – because even though we don’t need a second car very often, we do need it sometimes. 

Thus began an epic decade of car-shopping procrastination.  I don’t think I can reconstruct all of the machinations that went into me not ever buying a second car, but I think it started with my sister’s wedding, when they sent us back across country from California driving my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s old Dodge Raider.  (They were relocating themselves, but it would be nearly a year before they reclaimed it from us.)  I think by then, Monica had taken a part time job driving an enormous Suburban for the school we’d enrolled the boys in – and that became our second car for two or three years.  When she’d had enough of carting school kids and turned in the SUV, Monica did actually buy a Saturn sedan off of Craigslist for two thousand dollars, but within a month or two she totaled it, getting rear-ended while buying eggs from a local farmer – so that car hardly counts.  At some point my father off-loaded his Dodge Van on us, but it was never going to pass inspection in Rhode Island, so I sold it to an old man who seemed down on his luck and I’m sure that van didn’t help.  Friends moved to Japan for a 18 months and needed someone to look after their zippy little Impreza.  And finally, my mother’s reliable and well-preserved ’96 Honda Accord came our way when she upgraded to a Lincoln hybrid. 

The old lady – our once-reliable Saturn gradually became the second car. 

But my mother’s old trooper of a ‘96 Honda Accord – is also showing its age.  The odometer stopped working after it’s last inspection, so the mileage remains a perpetually spry 264,954.  The radio comes and goes and we need pliers to adjust heating.

So in December we did the unthinkable.  We finally went car shopping and quickly bought a brand new 2016 Toyota hybrid Rav 4.  There was no bargaining, because only show models could be found and we had to pry the vehicle away from the dealership.

And so the Saturn was demoted to third car.   It is still parked just off the driveway by the woodpile, finally looking entirely derelict and forlorn – with a bashed bumper (we spent that long-ago insurance money on something besides fixing the bumper) a roof scraped and scratched from ill-advised snow-shoveling, a speedometer that thinks you’re always driving 40, windshield wipers that spontaneously jump to startling life on cold mornings, and ceiling fabric hanging in drapes and tatters.  And since it failed to start in March – demoted still further to ugly driveway ornament.

I have to jump start it and drive it away to the salvage yard,  because I need that spot.  Porter's aunt has a '98 Honda to unload and she figures her more or less penniless nephew could make use of it when he goes off to college this fall.  

And so the cycle of life continues . . . 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Gypsy moth infestations

a freshly hatched gypsy moth caterpillar

Growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1980s I saw years when the leaves came out on the trees in May and were gone by middle of June.  From a distance, the rolling, forested hills would look like they had in March – all grays and browns.  Up close, hiking in the woods you would hear a constant hiss of frass falling from the gypsy moth caterpillars above - like a dry rain.  

The first year or two trees would re-leaf by July, but if the moths persisted trees would begin to die.

Here in Rhode Island, flocks of grackles – accompanied by a few cuckoos – spent a couple of weeks last summer in our woods at the height of the caterpillar season.  (The two species have found ways to deal with spiny caterpillars like the gypsy moth.  The yellow-billed cuckoo can discard its stomach lining once it has ruined it with the caterpillar's defensive spines; the grackles seem to take the more direct approach of trying to beat the spines off by smacking them against a tree branch.)  

But there is only so much they can do, and at the end of summer there were hundreds of tawny egg patches - proof that plenty of moths had evaded predation.

Now the trees are coming into leaf, and tiny newly hatched caterpillars are on the move.  That's what has me recalling the deforestation of years past.  Maybe it will turn out to be a localized outbreak and the cuckoos and grackles will come back with friends to share the bounty.  Or maybe it will be like the bad old days, where defoliation stretched mile after mile.

with ballpoint pen, for scale

Friday, May 6, 2016

More reminiscing - Tucson to San Diego

Once, when I was living in San Diego, some old friends were gathering in Tucson.  This must have been at the beginning of the 90s, because there was a year or so there when I didn’t have a car.  I discarded my ’78 Chrysler LeBaron in Eugene, Oregon for a cool $175, and a year of bicycling passed before I acquired an old diesel VW rabbit - bought for $500 from someone who was leaving San Diego in a hurry.  For this trip to Arizona I know I didn’t have a car, because I took the Greyhound bus from San Diego to Tucson, which is something only a person without a car would do.

Photo credit: Dan Goldstein
My only recollection of that journey is the aftermath, standing at the fumey bus station, sore from hours in seats designed for very small people – designed specifically for a ridership shrunken and stunted from the poverty and desperation that drives one to ride a Greyhound bus between San Diego and Tucson.  Standing in front of the baggage claim desk – who knew such a thing even existed – being told that they had somehow lost my luggage, despite the luggage transaction being pretty simple and straightforward.  They were just supposed to have put my bag under the damned bus.

So with sore knees and no toothbrush nor change of clothes, I solemnly swore that the Greyhound corporation would no longer have the custom of Andrew J. Brown, future Doctor of Anthropology.

Nevertheless, after a successfully pleasant and reviving visit with old college friends – I went and did reclaim my pack from that bus company that was dead to me.  (Now I had two toothbrushes – since it turned out such were indeed for sale even in Arizona.)  But I was not prepared to forgive nor was I willing to be ground down – wedged tight from knee to sacrum - by plasticated seatage and 13 hours of transit purgatory.

Tied securely to my pack, I had a light summer sleeping bag. Whether this was foresight on my part or a loaner from a friend – I don’t remember.  Importantly, that item meant that I wasn’t bound to civilization or its abusive transit companies. I was an autonomous being – with my own portable home, like a tortoise or a Pima.  I’d hitchhiked plenty before – navigated the tundra of Finland and escaped the suburbs of DC.  It was with the optimism of experience that I hugged my friends goodbye by their desiccated ocotillo hedge, and strode off to the byways of the desert.

To this point, most of my hitchhiking had been done farther north.  In the northeast, where people are really too busy to develop elaborate, time-consuming fetishes about murdering hitchhikers and other vagabonds.  Or the vast sweep of the Great Lakes and northern plains, where murderous urges have been pretty much sublimated into church feuds, school board elections and Rotarian lunches.  Certainly nothing to trouble your average hitchhiker over-much.  Granted, the Pacific Northwest’s variety of ride-sharer seemed a bit sketchier and more drug-addled, but still pretty innocent.

But maybe the north is different.  In any case, it turns out that the Sonoran desert between Tucson and San Diego is peopled by another breed entirely.  Maybe it’s that night sky that flips a billion starry middle fingers to the significance of your ephemeral shuffle upon the coil.  Maybe it’s those unresolved tensions with your next door neighbor, an equally sun-stricken misanthrope across ten miles of creosote brush.  People driving across the desert did indeed seem to have time enough on their hands for elaborate hobbies and enthusiasms.

On the bright side, there’s also a kind of carelessness about consequence that means they will pick up a skinny, nervous-looking vagabond in the desert.  So there’s that.

As I entrusted my fragile-seeming body into one battered truck and sand-scoured car after another, I was mostly quiet and only sometimes did I ruminate about all of my fellow Greyhound passengers who had dozed away in that well-lit and public space of a bus and who would have been hard put to secretly murder me – even if their crushed and small-seated souls had retained such energy and ambition. 

But in the end finally, after enough hours of sidelong glances and crackling, apocalyptic AM radio, as night was falling, I was set down anti-climactically in the stubble of an alfalfa field.  I’d crossed the desert to the Imperial Valley – a verdant swale of farming dangling south of the Salton Sea.  Interstate 8 hummed and sparkled to the south of me.  I climbed one of the huge rectilinear stacks of hay bales – two stories high and the size of a Mississippi river barge.  Standing atop you could see for miles into the dusk.  Sit down, and the land disappeared.  It was just sky above – and no one would ever know you were there except for the herons who flew hwarking overhead on their way to the rookeries.  And that suited me fine. 

By then the billion starry middle fingers were pretty and sparklesome.   The folks of the dry washes and creosote brush had done me no harm after all.  My knees didn’t hurt.  In fact, as I unrolled the sleeping bag and stretched out on the aromatic bales, I very much liked my fragile body.  So yeah, I thought to myself, once I got myself back to San Diego, I was officially retiring from hitchhiking in the American Southwest. 

I hwarked at one of the herons flying past, but it ignored me.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May 1975 - Diary of a fourth-grader

Mom's poly sci notebook from college, Penn State circa 1960, repurposed
I was clearing out some old boxes.  Getting rid of stuff whose sentimental value had leached slowly away.  Ribbons from the Huntingdon County fair, 1979-80, my old elementary school bookbag, now crumpled and petrified - (There was an odd moment in the mid-70s when the old cloth and leather rucksacks of our parents generation disappeared, and it would take a few years for nylon backpacks to replace them.  So we carried our books to school in a drawstring bag with the school’s mascot upon it.  Now that I’m throwing the bag away, I may never think of it again . . . ); a collapsible binoculars that I thought was pretty cool back when; college arts mags that I wasn’t in; Mad Magazines from the 70’s, and so on.

Other things go back in the box to keep until the rest of their sentimental value leaches away.  A stack of letters from my first girlfriend, when I was 15 and we lived an insurmountable hundred miles apart; drawings and writings; letters from other friends and later girlfriends; old photography marred by a poor mastery of the darkroom. 

And a random collection of journals and notebooks.  In one of my first attempts - or at least earliest surviving - I kept a journal for the month of May in 1975 – when I was ten – and though it has nothing much to say about my inner states – it’s an odd glance into the habits of daily life that I would otherwise have no consistent recollection of.  Here is a trio of entries from this 4th-grader, of 41 years ago (misspellings and all):

Thursday, May 1, 1975
I got up late at about 7:45.  We traded trapping cards.  I had 5 – now I have 21.  In Library I got Cave 4 and Bone People.  Bryan Carnathon ate 25 cups of cranberry sauce at lunch.  In reading I only have one story left until I’m done.  I played kickball at recess.  By then the rain had stopped.  After school I started Dad’s birthday present.  It’s a soap carving.  Then I went downstairs and built a tower of blocks.  Right now I think my sister is getting sick.  Right now she has diaria.  So Christy is sleeping with me. 
 Friday, May 2, 1975
I got up in the morning at 6:00. I got trapped to 22.  I got 100 on a paper in Social Studys.  I played kickball during recess. James Ross gave us all a blow pop.  I finished my last story in Reading today.  We played the princapal in gym and the two teachers and lost.  Then we picked up teams and our team won in volleyball.  After school I started the second present – is a pencil holder.  Jeff Krushinski came home with Ronnie.  We played a few games of baseball.  Then we spied on the little kids for a little while.  Then me and Ronnie played a little badmitten.  When I came in I noticed Dad’s Birthday Cake that Christy and Cathy made. It’s iceing was like water and it was running off the cake.  It was marshmellow so it stuck to everything.  But we ate the cake anyhow.  I gave Dad the soap carving and pencil holder.  Then we watched Chico and the Man and Hot L Baltimore. Then I went to bed.  Christy isn’t sleeping with me tonight because Cathy’s feeling much better. 
 Saturday, May 3, 1975
I got up and watched 1 hour of TV.  At about 11:00 I went outside – couldn’t find any.  Chucky was down at the shoe store.  I couldn’t find Ronnie, Scott or Tommy.  So I came home and tried to call Neal, but he was in the middle of a baseball game.  I decided to go to Staffer’s (a store).  On the way I found Ronnie, Scott and Tommy working on a go-cart.  They went up to ask if they could go too.  When I got back we worked on the go-cart.  Then I played badmitten – then we had some batting practice. After that we played some football.  Then I came in and cleared the table and went to bed.  Then I got up to watch Mary Tyler Moore.
Entries like these, and the letters – which are half of a conversation about events long forgotten – make me feel like I've led multiple lives.  That this me - of today - isn't the only me I've gotten to be. 

Reincarnation is real - it just happens so gradually that we don't notice it right away.