Tuesday, November 29, 2011
The Crown Victoria served in appropriate fashion for a vehicle named after such a noble and prudish queen. Modesty was not always possible on the icy roads of Dallas. She would sometimes spin her royal self around till she was facing oncoming traffic. After a pause, she would compose herself and proceed in a more queenly manner – behaving as if it had all been part of her royal highness’ plan.
She had a penchant for attempting to travel about with random items on her roof. Countless forgotten coffee cups slid from the top of the car and were smashed to pieces in the parking lot. Books found themselves repeatedly crushed into the concrete of Skillman Highway by passing cars after attempting to ride on top of the queen. The only one that actually survived was a notebook that contained about three semesters worth of graduate school homework. The notebook had the good sense to ride on the hood instead of the roof. I noticed it shifting positions in the saddle when I was driving about 45 mph down the road. Fortunately, I was able to stop and retrieve it before it joined the ranks of the other books and coffee cups.
Like all things Victorian, however, the whitewashed exterior hid an underside that was less than seemly. We drove the car back and forth from Dallas to Tampa several times, but never invested in the fermented motivational products that would have inspired our friends to help us clean it out. That is to say, there were objects in the car that had been at Billy Bob’s and had never been removed – even after two years. When we were preparing to move back to Florida, we found newspapers living as hermits in distant recesses of the car. They had gathered to reminisce about past events and compare headline size. In addition to the periodical eremites, several thousand new denizens from Texas had moved into the trunk, floorboards, seats, and back windowsill. It was not a clean car, but we didn’t realize exactly how dirty it was until we received the award.
Our upstairs neighbors were Sammy and Ervin. They were from West Texas. Sammy was fittingly ample for a West Texan. Ervin was nice despite the conspicuous lack of a “G” on the end of his name. They had moved to the big city so that Ervin could work at the Texas Instruments Plant. Ervin’s daddy had worked at the plant, and Ervin’s daddy’s daddy had worked at the plant. So Ervin and Sammy decided that Ervin would work at the plant until they saved up enough money to buy a piece of property and a “double-wide” in West Texas. They had a little boy that was the same age as our oldest son. Zachariah had been speaking in full sentences for almost a year. Their son, Tyler, could only manage some indecipherable monosyllabic grunts that were related to his favorite television show, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It wouldn’t have been that awkward except that when we were all together, Zachariah would say, “May we go outside and play?” and Tyler would say, “Mi…Mor…Pa…Ra…er!” Sammy would look at us in wonder and say, “Our boys are just so smart! They’re both little geniuses!” We would grin with chagrin saying, “Oh, yes. Yes.” To be fair to Sammy, Tyler very well could have been a genius by West Texas standards.
From the moment they moved in next door, Sammy and Ervin began asking us if we would like to go to the beach with them. Being in the middle of Texas, we assumed that they were using the word “beach” incorrectly.
“There isn’t a beach in Dallas. It’s landlocked.”
“No, no. We want y’all to come down to Lake Ray Hubbard with us.”
“Oh! A lake. That’s not a beach. We’re from Florida. We don’t swim in fresh water.”
That excuse allowed us to avoid “goin’ to the beach” for an entire year.
After my graduation, we decided to move back to Tampa. We had a fresh grandchild for the free babysitters waiting in Florida. When we were sure of our plans for departure, we also made a final concession to the neighbor’s request. The West Texans and the Floridians drove to Lake Ray Hubbard with cooler and sunscreen in tow. Upon arrival, we began unloading the car. I had carried a cooler down to the “beach” and looked back toward our beloved Crown Vic to see Jennifer talking with two gentlemen. One fellow speaking to her was carrying a clipboard, and the other man had a camera around his neck. He was poking his head and camera into the open doors of the car. I found this very alarming as we normally kept the insides of the car away from prying eyes. As I approached, Jenn introduced me to Michael Precker and David Leeson from the Dallas Morning News. They were assigned the task of writing an article on the recent seatbelt recall that had taken place for Japanese-made cars. The Japanese automakers had basically said that there was nothing wrong with their seatbelts. The belts worked fine in Japan. The problem was, according to the Japanese car makers, that all the filthy Americans ate McDonalds in their cars and got French fries and sodas in the seatbelt receptacles causing them to malfunction. Michael and David thought they would head out to Lake Ray Hubbard on Memorial Day as part of their search to find the dirtiest car in Dallas for a newspaper story. We won the contest in a landslide victory. What most impressed the two reporters about our car was the quality of the garbage lurking around. Beethoven symphonies, literature, women’s studies material, and an analysis of Elliot Carter’s fourth string quartet were all swimming around with old newspapers, fast food bags, a large rock, a hand drawn sign that said “Dallas or Bust” (which we had hung as a self fulfilling property before our time spent with Billy Bob and Company), and a mountain of dirty clothes. The contrast of high-brow material with trash could only have been produced by two intellectuals living in an apartment complex full of Texans on welfare. They asked us a few questions and took a very large picture of me sitting in the front seat of the car. The picture showed me looking out over the top of my glasses wearing a T-shirt that was stained with furniture polish. My hands held a copy of the Beethoven symphonies and a collection of Maya Angelo poems. As a consolation prize, they awarded us one of those tree shaped air fresheners that you hang from your rearview mirror. A few days later, the huge picture of me was on the cover of the Today section of the Dallas Morning News. I have reprinted some excepts of the article below:
“As they cruise the roads of Texas, Jennifer Rosenblatt and Kurt Knecht would never think of littering, and we all should be grateful. That is because their car looks like a garage sale being held inside a trash bin. The trusty Crown Victoria brought the couple from Florida to Southern Methodist University two years ago, and they haven't cleaned it out since. There are generations of McDonald's wrappers and Slurpee cups, mounds of toys and crumpled clothes, last December's newspapers and unidentified reel-to-reel tapes. A big rock rests next to a symphonic score on the dashboard, while a Maya Angelou book and a shriveled banana peel share space under the back window. There is much, much more.
"You should see the trunk," says Ms. Rosenblatt with a smile as she pulls out a hat from the Container Store, where - honest to goodness - she used to work. Lest you think this is cause for family friction, listen to her husband:
"It's just a question of priorities," says Mr. Knecht, who just completed a master's in music composition. "An hour of cleaning out the car would mean one less hour to read a book or listen to Beethoven."
Whatever their opinions of Beethoven, millions of Americans would agree….
Besides the general penchant for cleanliness, Dr. McDougall has other explanations for the clean cars. Because of crowded roads and good public transportation, fewer Japanese commute by car. And because the government uses frequent inspections and high fees to discourage people from keeping old cars, he says, people tend to buy new ones more often.
"We tend to take care of new things more carefully," says Dr. McDougall, who has lived in Japan for 12 years. "I think that's very much the case here."
The director says his sister-in-law, who is Japanese, recently was in Boston and needed a taxi. When the car approached, she saw it was in less-than-great shape - and dirty.
"She refused to get in," Dr. McDougall says. "She thought it might really be dangerous."
By that reasoning, she may not even want to set foot in Dallas at all while that Crown Victoria is still around. The Rosenblatt/Knecht trashmobile seems immune to parents: "My mother told me I'm not a homeless waif, so why is my car like this?" Ms. Rosenblatt says. "When my mother-in-law came to visit, she got into the car and said “We're going to stop at the dumpster and throw all this away. Well, we didn't."
It is immune to friends and even occasional misgivings about the impact on 3-year-old Zachariah and 3-month-old Avi.
"When I see my son toss something on the floor I tell him we don't do that," she says. "He looks at me like, `What planet are you from?' "
Now and then, there are concessions.
"Usually there's only room for the driver," Ms. Rosenblatt says. "If we all want to go somewhere, I make him get up early and clean off enough of a section so we can all sit down."
I received a phone call at 7:30AM the day the article appeared. A voice said: “This is Charles Kuralt from CBS. We saw the article about the dirty car and would like to do a story about it on 60 Minutes.” I immediately recognized that the voice was not Charles Kuralt, but Dr. Martin Sweidel, the chair of the music department at SMU.
“Hi, Dr. Sweidel,” I responded after a brief pause.
“Oh, you recognized me. I saw the article,” he said sternly.
I then realized that they had mentioned that I was a recent graduate of Meadows School of the Arts and that this might not be the image that the administration wanted portrayed. Dirty cars are neither Southern nor Methodist. Finally, the tense silence was broken, “Congratulations, son! You done us proud! We’re putting a copy in your permanent file.”
I began to wonder about how many other people had actually seen and read the article. The day continued, as most of them seem to do, and we found ourselves to be the brunt of much teasing. I would show up to a rehearsal and people would surreptitiously pull out copies of the paper and laugh. Our parents all received copies of the paper which caused more dismay.
We were late on the rent that month, so I went down to speak with the apartment complex manager about an extension. “Listen, we are getting ready to move to Tampa, and this will be our last month. Would it be possible for you to wait a few days before we turn in the rent?”
“We really don’t make excep – Hey! I know you! You’re that guy with the dirty car, right? I read that article in the paper the other day. I couldn’t believe it was true!”
“About the rent?”
“Do you really have the Beethoven symphonies and a banana peal?”
“Yes, it was the only time we ever went to the ‘beach’ here in Dallas.”
When we finally sold the Crown Vic, we cleaned her up, threw the rock in the dumpster, and drove her down to school where the transaction was to take place. I think we sold it for $300.00 which was the amount needed for food and gas for the trip to Florida. When we met the buyer, we said, “This car is famous you know.”
“Yes. It once won a contest for being the dirtiest car in Dallas. They wrote a newspaper article about it.”
“This was that car! I read that article! You were the people in that article! Well it looks clean now.”
And so it was under the shade of the oaks on the SMU campus that we finally said good-bye to the Crown Victoria. My father had given us one of his old work vans. After seeing the newspaper article, he asked us to be sure to remove the company logo as soon as possible. The van was in comparably good mechanical health. It had never had its stomach pumped because of swallowing too much diesel fuel. The principle defect that a work van presented to a young family was the lack of a back seat for the kids. Our mechanics in Tampa informed us that due to its design as a work vehicle, it would be impossible to install a normal back seat. However, they felt sure that if we could salvage the front seat of a pick-up truck from a junkyard that they would be able to bolt it to the floor. The Feng Shui aesthetic from Alexandria, Louisiana had finally managed to migrate from Billy Bob’s genius to the back seat of our van. When the seat was finally in place, it became a lasting prophetic warning: always check the color of the dispenser before you pump the gasoline.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
As we were walking her up to our pad, I was met by a 6’ 7’’ African American man with glasses who reminded me a little of Kareem Abdul Jabar.
“Hi,” I said.
“Are you moving in downstairs?” I asked.
After the brief and portentous encounter, we went upstairs to our place and spent the evening retelling stories of our car’s trip(s) to the repair shop(s) in Louisiana. The next day we toured around Dallas some more and returned home again. That evening, there was a knock at the door around 10:45PM. I opened the door to find Kareem in a state of noticeable excitement. I looked up his tall frame, and words began rapidly pouring out of his mouth onto my head. “My name is Derrick. I know you don’t know me, but you’re the only one here who’s even said ‘hello’ to me. My wife Alicia is getting ready to have our baby, and we don’t have a car. Is there any way you could take us to the hospital?”
We ran into the bedroom and asked Jenn’s mother the type of question that became typical of our married life together. “Can you watch Zachariah while we take two strangers to the hospital? This guy’s wife is getting ready to deliver her baby.” She agreed, and we ran downstairs to the car. Alicia (whom I had not previously had the pleasure of meeting) was clearly in labor. Derrick helped Alicia into the passenger seat. She maintained a grateful disposition despite being in very apparent discomfort. The back seat was full of junk that had remained unpacked after the move. Jennifer made room for herself by pushing the debris to the side. The only space left in the car for Derrick was a small area of the bench seat between his very pregnant wife and I. In my estimation, approximately three feet and seven inches of Derrick’s six feet seven inches was torso, leaving four feet of legs. Since he was bipedal, we had to fit a driver, a pregnant lady, Derrick, and eight feet of Derrick’s legs into the front seat of the car. We skipped over the formal introductions and sped off as quickly and indirectly as possible. Derrick’s legs were everywhere. There were legs on the dashboard, on both floorboards, on the seat, and some seemed to be up around the rear view mirror.
The hospital was only about fifteen minutes to the West if you knew the correct route. Derrick didn’t know the correct route. Derrick knew the forty-five minute route. Derrick and Alicia had just moved to our apartment complex from Oak Cliff on the Southwest side of Dallas. We were all the way on the Northeast side of the city. Derrick only knew how to get to the hospital from Oak Cliff. Instead of taking the expedient route down Central, Derrick took us further away from the hospital toward the East. We picked up Interstate-635 - the loop that travels around Dallas and Ft. Worth. I-635 is the “Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway.” We followed LBJ south until the loop bent west and exited near Oak Cliff almost thirty minutes later. We then turned right and headed East again to make it to the hospital.
A diary of Kurt’s thought process on the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway
10:50PM – How weird is it that we are driving strangers to the birth of their child!
10:51PM - I remember watching Jennifer in labor when Zachariah was born.
10:53PM - Alicia seems to be handling the contractions well.
10:54PM - She doesn’t scream like Jennifer.
10:55PM – Is it ironic that we are on Lyndon B. Johnson’s Interstate, and we don’t know where we are going?
10:56PM - “MMMMMMMMMMM”
10:56PM - That was weird. Alicia just let out a guttural moan. That was a contraction. She just had a contraction.
10:57PM - It didn’t even seem to hurt her that much.
10:58PM – I’m not sure “ironic” is the right word. People have been lost following Lyndon Johnson before.
10:59PM - It’s almost like a small tremor begins traveling along the fault line of her body.
11:00PM - Alicia gradually shakes more and more until the magma finds its way to the surface in a primordial cry of “MMMMMMMMM.”
11:01PM – I bet Billy Bob never thought this car would go 80mph again.
11:02PM - Man that guy has some long legs.
11:03PM - They’re blocking part of the view out the back window.
11:04PM – This route to the hospital is very circuitous.
11:05PM – I never get to use the word circuitous in casual conversation.
11:06PM – Lyndon B. Johnson was circuitous when he was trying to explain how he faked the incidents of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
11:07PM - This is very different than Jennifer’s labor.
11:08PM - This is something more earthy and ancient.
11:09PM - It’s like mother earth is giving birth next to me.
11:10PM – Maybe “fitting” is the right word.
11:11PM – It’s not really ironic to be lost following Lyndon Johnson.
11:12PM - Who are these people and what am I doing racing at 85mph with them in a car?
11:13PM – Man, that dude has some long legs.
11:14PM –Derrick just suggested that I turn on my hazard lights.
11:15PM –Everyone already drives 85mph on the Interstate in Dallas. What will the hazards do?
11:16PM – Are those legs that are blocking my hand from the hazard lights?
11:17PM- Only in Texas would I be driving at 85mph with my hazards on in the slow lane because of all the people that are passing me on the left.
11:18PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMM,” hmmm, another contraction.
11:19PM - How is that man next to me on the seat making it past his own legs to put his hand on her? His legs are covering part of the dashboard.
11:20PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM” Another contraction. That one was longer.
11:21PM - I remember when Jenn had Zachariah. It was really intense when her contractions were only two minutes apart.
11:22PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:23PM - TWO MINUTES APART! HOLY S*%T! THIS WOMAN IS GOING TO GIVE BIRTH IN MY CAR!
11:23PM - The accelerator is touching the floor! The car is at 95mph.
11:24PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:25PM - That’s cool, I’m actually flooring a car and keeping the pedal down.
11:26PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:27PM - I once pushed my old Nova over 100mph in high school.
11:28PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:29PM - That was when I worked at the grocery store with that kid, what was his name?
11:30PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:31PM - Oh yeah. Steve.
11:32PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:33PM - I never really liked Steve.
11:34PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:35PM - How can his legs be on the floor and on the front window at the same time?
11:36PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM” HOLY S*!T!
11:37PM - Please, God, let us make it to the hospital.
11:38PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:39PM - The floorboards aren’t even cleaned.
11:40PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:41PM - I hope it’s not one of those meconium babies. The velure seats will be ruined.
11:42PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:43PM - We don’t have any hot water or towels.
11:44PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”
11:45PM - Why do they do that in the movies. I’ve seen a baby being born, and they never used hot water or towels.
11:46PM - “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM” 11:47PM - O God, please hold this woman’s child inside her body until we get to the hospital.
Around this time, Derrick brought me back to reality by recognizing a street. After a few more turns, we arrived at the hospital. Jennifer jumped out and grabbed a nurse who quickly brought a wheelchair for Alicia. They took her inside, and the baby was born immediately. About thirty minutes later, Derrick was sharing a cigar with me outside in the parking lot.
“It’s a boy!” he said. “I’ve named him Delantrius.”
“Wow! Is that some sort of Latin name?”
“No. It’s after me and my friends. The ‘De’ is for Derrick. ‘Lan’ is for my friend ‘Lonnie’. The ‘Tr’ is for my friend Trey. The ‘Trius’ is for, like, the ‘three of us’, so ‘trius’. Delantrius.”
“Well, that’s kind of cool,” I said. I thought to myself that it was a good thing Lonnie wasn’t named Shiloh because then Derrick would have named his son “Deshitrius”.
“So,” Derrick continued, “the doctor said if we had been five minutes later, then the baby would have been born in the car.” After I offered my congratulations again, Derrick and I spent some time actually doing more formal introductions.
Following our initial escapade, Derrick, Alicia, Jennifer, and I became fast friends. Zachariah loved Derrick too. If he ever dropped a toy off the balcony of our apartment, he could retrieve it by screaming, “DERRIIIIICK!!!!!!” The giant 6’7” man would emerge from his cave below, reach down on the ground, and hand the toy up a full story through the guardrail.
Becoming friends with someone after you have driven them to the hospital for their child’s delivery is like a Chinese shar-pei. There is something not quite right about it. A fast emotional bond was established between the four of us before we really knew each other’s names, and it hung around like the extra skin on a dog’s head. Our first double date was the mad drive to the hospital. This probably explains the development of our continued service as taxi drivers. Within a few months, I was getting up at around 4:30AM to take Derrick to work in Ft. Worth. I would arrive back to the bedroom at around 6:00AM, sleep for an hour, and get up to start the day. Eventually we lost contact with them. It was strange. We were very close to Derrick and Alicia for our stay in Dallas, but didn’t keep in touch when they moved to an apartment complex a few blocks away. I probably shouldn’t have hoped for more. Relationships that are begun on the seats of a car seldom last.
Monday, November 21, 2011
We had no idea how famous the car would become when we took it from my grandmother’s driveway. After two years of living in Dallas, complete strangers would recognize us as “that couple with the car.” In my imagination, I attempt to recreate the first day we drove the car. I picture the interior of the vehicle and scan for some feature that would set the car apart. When I encounter greatness, I am always looking for some kind of weird birthmark. You can point out the brownish skin and say, “Aha! I don’t have the birthmark like she does. That’s why I’m not great.” In the case of this vehicle, there were no distinguishing characteristics. When two uncommon people fail miserably in their attempt to live a common life, there is usually a portent at the beginning of the story.
Would that it could have been a mystical experience! I wish that some bangle-armed, turban-headed lady with warts had pulled me aside at a carnival and whispered, “When you drive the car that has a coffee stain on the back seat in the shape of the Virgin Mary’s head, you will become famous for a week in Dallas, Texas.” It wasn’t like that. It was just a car, and we were just a recently married couple. The car, however, had different ideas, and it catapulted us into notoriety. The 1984 Ford Crown Victoria eventually became a car of legend, and we were taken along for the ride. In this, the Crown Vic’s first adventure, one can already spot the raw talent the car had for placing itself into the type of situations where it might make a name for itself
In 1993, I was accepted to Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University as a candidate for the Masters Degree in Music Composition. I used to play this gig in the summertime called the Broadway Theatre Project for Ann Reinking. At the end of three weeks of playing the piano ten hours a day, the accompanists would get a check for $1500.00. At the time, Jenn and I thought that $1500.00 was a mad pile of cash, so we devised a plan:
1 – Bribe friends to help
2 – Get them to help us clean out our place
3 – Place most of our belongings in storage
4 – Pack the barest necessities into the Crown Victory that my grandmother had given us
5 – Drive to Dallas
6 – Rent an apartment with $1500.00 and no jobs
7 – Pay rent with student loan money
Everything went according to plan. The friends descended and cleaned with a Dionysian fury, the kind of which can only be fueled by a twelve pack of beer. The majority of our belongings were placed in storage to be shipped to Dallas. The rest were forced into the car like cream cheese seeking out every nook and cranny of a bagel. The trunk was filled. Zachariah was seventeen months old at the time. We placed his car seat in the center of the back seat, and filled the back window with books that completely blocked any chance of seeing with the rearview mirror. On either side of Zachariah, the car was so filled from floor to ceiling that the installation and removal of a child was like a spelunking adventure. The area between driver and passenger was filled, as well as floor space on both sides of the back seat. A cooler was placed on the passenger floor so that whoever was not driving kept their legs up high. Having accustomed myself to the “high leg” style of passenger riding in the Rabbit, I felt well prepared for the Crown Vic’s maiden voyage.
We set out for “Big D” with the sorrow of leaving our friends and the excitement of a road trip rolling around the inside of the car like clouds inside a Volkswagen Rabbit. We meandered up Interstate 75 out of Tampa, and picked up Interstate 10 to start the trek Westward. After a brief respite at the rest area outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, we achieved Interstate 49 and began to wander North. At the time, Interstate 49 was not completed. We had to exit on one side of Alexandria, drive through the city, and pick up the Interstate on the other side. We took a wrong turn and passed the Interstate. After reorienting ourselves, we decided to fill our rather parched gas tank before the final leg of the trip to Dallas. We had made excellent time and were going to reach Dallas by the late afternoon after leaving the day before. With the gas tank filled, we pulled out of the station and headed along the road. We picked up Interstate 49 again, and drove the last leg of the trip.
Actually, the car rolled out of the gas station about 10 feet and died. I attempted to revive it by restarting it in a manner that resembled a Volkswagon Rabbit making a right hand turn. The engine struggled to come alive, turning over again and again to no avail. More defibrillations only showed that the patient needed the expertise of a doctor that was more experienced than myself. By good fortune, we had a membership in AAA auto club, so after a phone call, the nice lady assured us that a man from “Billy Bob’s” would be over to help us restart our car. The sun was bearing down on us at approximately nine thousand miles per hour. So, we reached into the bowels of the backseat and removed Zachariah from the cave-like structure of belongings that we had created for him. With the toys deep in the trunk, we had few choices for entertaining a seventeen-month-old child. Jenn saw a ditch lying on the side of the road in the Louisiana heat. We picked it up and used it to distract our child as the heat continued its unrelenting pursuit. True to the words we had heard from the operator, a tow truck pulled up within thirty minutes. “Billy Bob’s Tow Trucking” was air brushed on the side of the vehicle in the style of a 70s license plate that you would put on the front of your car for a test of your existential freedom. Emerging from the truck was a rather tall and ample gentleman wearing the traditional uniform of the auto repairman. His name patch bore the moniker “Billy Bob” in sewing machine cursive. Not only did we get prompt service, Billy Bob himself had come into the hot Louisiana sun to rescue two college students. I re-entered the sweltering vehicle while Billy Bob placed himself in front of the hood and began poking around. Once again, we charged the defibrillator and attempted to resurrect the patient. After several attempts, Billy Bob realized that the patient was in more serious condition than his initial diagnoses suggested.
“Wull, tsgot far,” said he in a thick Louisiana drawl. I was unfamiliar with the language that he spoke. It sounded like English to a degree, but it was an English into which someone had crashed a car. The victim survived, but her vowels were all mutilated, and her consonants had been crushed together. “’Tsgot fyooel.” “Fuel!” I thought to myself. That word sounds the same in Louisianaian and in the English that I know. OK. He’s saying, “It’s got fuel…and…It’s got fire!” He’s talking about electricity and gas. And again, he repeated his mantra, “’Tsgot far. ‘Tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’. Ah’m gonna hafta tow it to mah shop.” Despite his swift arrival and kind demeanor, the heat had already melted through the thin layer of patience we had been wearing. Reluctantly, we handed him the keys to the Crown Vic, and moved cautiously past the air-brushed sign. We crammed ourselves into the passenger seat of Billy Bob’s truck and ventured to his shop with the Crown Vic in tow.
Billy Bob’s “shop” was more of a junkyard with a building in it than a traditional automotive repair facility. He towed the car toward the building through the surrounding forest of long dead Fords. We were not very encouraged when the waiting area was neither air-conditioned nor furnished. Actually, it was furnished in a manner that I could only guess was the product of Billy Bob’s own genius. In place of the traditional orange nagahide couch that accompanies the burnt coffee and reruns of Oprah in most garage waiting areas, Billy Bob had taken an interior-decorating page from the organic architectural school. He rescued the front seat from one of the pickup trucks resting in the junkyard. The seat was bolted it to the floor of the waiting area to create a “couch” for his guests. The seatbelts were left intact. It was everything I had imagined a Louisiana junkyard would look like when I was a youth (with the possible exception of the lack of air conditioning). After making sure that Jennifer and Zachariah were buckled into the couch, I stepped outside to search out Billy Bob. I found that a fascinating one-act play was being rehearsed in front of our Crown Victoria.
A COMEDY AND A PHILOSOPHY
Billy Bob – a middle-aged automotive mechanic who has gained the respect of his peers by rising through the ranks of the other Louisiana automotive mechanics to own his own junkyard.
Bobby Joe – though slightly younger than Billy Bob in real life, he seems to be older. He has been wizened by years of country wisdom and southern folklore. Bobby Joe functions as the philosopher of the group. His role is not insight, but commentary.
Willy John– a slightly younger man who actively investigates problems and offers diagnoses which are always slightly off the mark. Willy is hoping to own his own junkyard one day.
Cooter (a mime) – Though Cooter is a non-speaking role, it is perhaps the most physically demanding. Cooter is a nervous type who is always scampering around the action. He constantly offers new perspectives but only communicates through physical gesture.
The scene is a hot Louisiana junkyard. In front of a makeshift garage and office, a Ford Crown Victoria is collecting dust. Billy Bob, Bobby Joe, and Willy John are standing in front of the car with the hood raised. Cooter is running around the car and crawling underneath the vehicle every thirty seconds or so. He usually (but not always) emerges with a glass of gasoline which he has managed to collect by a method known only to himself. When the gasoline is obtained, Cooter sniffs it very carefully and makes a contorted face. He then pours it vehemently on the ground only to disappear under the car again.
Billy Bob: Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’
Bobby Joe: Mmmm
Willy John: D’s it got far?
Billy Bob: Yup. ‘Tsgot far. Try it.
At this point, Willy John attempts to turn the key while Cooter runs up to the front of the car and plays with a screwdriver in the area of the battery. After a great spark emerges causing Cooter to leap and drop the screwdriver, he scampers away to hide under the car again.
Billy Bob: See. ‘Tsgot far.
Bobby Joe: Mmmmmm. Yup.
Willy John: Wull. D’s it got fuel?
Here Cooter performs his fuel ritual and all look on until he pours the last bit out in offering to the junkyard gods.
Billy Bob: See. ‘Tsgot fuel.
Bobby Joe: Yup. Mmmmmmm.
Billy Bob: (as if saying a mantra) ‘Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. I don’ know why it ain’t startin’
Bobby Joe: Mmmmmmm.
Willy John: You sure it’s got far?
Billy Bob: Yup. ‘Tsgot far. Try it.
This time Billy Bob attempts to start the car, and Willy John watches until Cooter again shocks himself with the screwdriver.
Bobby Joe: Yup
Willy John: You sure it’s got fuel?
Cooter again performs the fuel ritual
Billy Bob: ‘Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’
At this point, the play should be repeated over and over again for approximately two to four hours in order to recreate what happened that day.
Jennifer and I had already made our obligatory phone calls to the family to let them know our car had broken down. With our hopes of getting back on the road waning, I left the play rehearsal to find Jenn and Zach. They were attempting to stay cool on the front seat of the Ford pick-up truck in the office. There is nothing like relaxing on a car seat after a twelve-hour drive. After Jennifer and I discussed the situation, I went back out to Billy Bob. Billy Bob was by this time deep in his trance and continually repeating the mantra, “’Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’ startin’.” What does the auto mechanic do when he can’t figure out a problem? Does he wait until Saturday morning and call Tom and Ray Magliozzi on Car Talk? I’m not so sure that Billy Bob had ever heard of National Public Radio, but he did have a solution. He said, “Ah’m goin’ ta call mah frien’ Fred to come ovah heah at five. Fred’sa certifah’d mechanic. He used to work at the Ford plant.”
Certified! The word resounded in my ear. Certified! “Certified is good,” I said to myself begging the question how one comes to be a AAA approved tow truck man without any qualifications except a truck with an air brushed sign. I was also excited to meet someone who had been baptized with a single Christian name. Fred had not only escaped the ubiquitous
bi-nominal theorem to which most of the parents of Louisiana auto-mechanics subscribe, but he had also managed to obtain “certification” of some sort or other. Thus it was that we waited. We continued to watch them rehearse the play (taking special pleasure in Cooter’s antics) until Fred arrived.
When Fred finally took the podium in front of our beleaguered car, he brought the commanding presence of a Toscannini or a Stokowski. Billy Bob and Willy John remained in awed silence as the master began to sense the technical deficiencies of the mechanical ensemble. Bobby Joe continued to pulsate approval and commentary with “Mmmmmm’s” and “Yup’s” as if the change in leadership had no affect on the situation. I like to think that Bobby Joe and I are similar in some ways. I’m quite sure that when I turn the key in my car that there is some inexorable logical process that causes the entire ensemble to play together in one harmonious action. However, there also seems to be a mystical element involved. I once read about a French woman who lived over a hundred years drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. I’ve known cars like that lady, though none of them were French cars. Why does a belt wear out on one day and not another? Why does a carburetor run out of carbs on Tuesday instead of Wednesday? The answers seem to be part of some cosmic process rather than the second law of thermodynamics. Cars make Calvinists of us all. “Mmmmmm. Yup.”
After an hour or so of diagnosing errors, the Louisiana sun was crawling off toward some swamp or other, and we realized that Dallas would have to wait for the morning. Entertaining a seventeen month old child for several hours with only a pick-up truck seat as a toy was no small feat. We almost wished we had brought the ditch along. Fred offered to take us to the Motel 6 when he realized that he would not finish the car that evening. We entered Fred’s car, and after Fred had removed us from the junkyard and entered the safety of the road, he turned to us and said in a reluctant tone, “Them boys back there ain’t so bright.” Of course, this observation made me want to ask Fred whether or not he was merely “certified” as a Master of all things Obvious. Fred, however, was nice and offering help, so I refrained. “I’ll go back there and help them for a while, but I have to get home. I also have to work tomorrow. I might be able to help them again later.” Fred dropped us off at the Motel 6, and we began spending money we didn’t have. Long distance phone calls to family. A night in a motel. Fast food. There was little to do aside from distracting ourselves with HBO and waiting for the morning.
Morning came, and after more fast food, we made a telephone call to Billy Bob to investigate his progress. Billy Bob was still working (now without the aid of Fred), but he could not point to a specific problem. They had replaced a few of the parts that Fred had pointed out as faulty during his tenure as director. Another bad HBO movie and more junk food passed. I phoned my father again. He said, “They’ve had the vehicle for almost twenty four hours and can’t tell you what’s wrong with it. You don’t know any mechanics there in Alexandria. Tell them to take it to the Ford dealership. At least you know that they’ll diagnose and fix the problem even if it is more expensive. You’ll at least be able to get back on the road.” So, we spoke once again to Billy Bob, and he could not reveal any progress. We said, “Tow it to the Ford dealership.” Billy Bob only charged us for the parts that he replaced and not the labor. The parts were another two or three hundred dollars that we did not have to give. We called the Ford dealership to inform them that we had switched our allegiance from “Billy Bob’s Tow Trucking” to Ford. The Ford mechanics told us they would be happy to help us and would begin work on our car first thing in the morning. So we hunkered down for another night of punishment. A bad 80s movie was blowing in from the west on the television followed by light showers of sitcom re-runs. We began to get that feeling that you get when you live in a motel, watch HBO movies, and survive on fast food. By this time, we had spent close to $500.00 in parts, motel bills, and junk food. What we had originally thought to be a “mad pile of cash” turned out to be more “mad” than “pile”, and our three day lifestyle was pumping quarters into the slot machine of a low budget gambling cruise.
I remember waking up a little late the next day. I remember that the phone rang at 12:15pm, and I remember the laughter. I was across the room, and when Jennifer answered the phone, I could hear the man laughing across Louisiana telephone wires. The conversation, as it was reported to me, went something like this:
“Um, Missz Ro-zen-blatt?”
“Yes, this is Jennifer Rosenblatt.”
“Um, Ma’am, ‘bout how far’d you get from that gas station? Twenty feet?”
“Um…No…About ten feet…Why?”
“You were pert darn near empty weren’t ya?”
“Ma’am, this car was fulla diesel fuel. It don’ run on diesel. It only runs on unleaded gasoline.”
Actually, the transcription of the conversation does not include the uproarious laughter that was interspersed between all of the mechanic’s comments. The laughter could be heard across the room where I was standing paralyzed by the terrifying visage that had become Jennifer’s face. When called upon, Jennifer has a great gift for stringing together degrading phrases, and upon hearing the news, there followed the usual barrage of “I can’t believe you’re such an idiotic – doltish – buffoonish – can’t live in the real worldish – I mean, who fills an empty tank full of diesel – that’s why they put the green handle on it” phrases. Of course, the string of insults was summarily repeated during the subsequent phone calls to our respective parents.
My final punishment was like a medieval rite. I exited the courtesy van that we had taken from the Motel 6 and was led through the town of Hixson Auto Plex Ford for my walk of shame. I could see mechanics crawling out from underneath cars to catch a glimpse of the offender. Suppressed giggling was rampant while they pointed out the city boy to each other. The keys to the Crown Vic were handed over with complimentary smirks from men who could barely contain their laughter. They explained how they had to pump out an entire gas tank, flush the engine, and change all the spark plugs and filters. The gallows were fastened over my neck with the words, “Now, Sir, you know this car ain’t gonna run on diesel fyool. You gotta pump unleaded gasoline in it.” Somewhere in the process we wound up talking to Billy Bob on the phone again. Jennifer had the opportunity once again to recount to fresh ears the idiocy of her new husband. Billy Bob claimed that the thought of diesel fuel had crossed his mind (“Mmmmm. Yup.”). I just smiled thinking of how Cooter stole the show by sniffing the gasoline (I mean diesel).
I still contend that by some freak of nature, diesel fuel actually managed to find its way out of an unleaded nozzle. Jennifer argues that if, in fact, a regular pump was dispensing diesel fuel, the other cars which fueled at the pump after us while we were waiting for Billy Bob would have also gone ten feet and stalled. I maintain that as part of a random cosmic process, the diesel fuel only came out of the regular pump for our car. Whatever the reason, my one endeavor to do a chemistry experiment on a Ford Crown Victoria with an empty gas tank caused us to spend about $1000.00 more than we had to spare. We drove the rest of the day and arrived that evening in Mesquite, Texas, just outside of Dallas proper. Feeling the need for some sense of constancy in our lives, we checked into the Motel 6.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Mathilde who liked to sing Schubert and who also liked to put strange things in her ears: a cautionary tale
Friday, November 11, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
|THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,|
|His rollrock highroad roaring down,|
|In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam|
|Flutes and low to the lake falls home.|
|A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth||5|
|Turns and twindles over the broth|
|Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,|
|It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.|
|Degged with dew, dappled with dew|
|Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,||10|
|Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,|
|And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.|
|What would the world be, once bereft|
|Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,|
|O let them be left, wildness and wet;||15|
|Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.|
II. Spring and Fall: to a young child
|MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving|
|Over Goldengrove unleaving?|
|Leáves, líke the things of man, you|
|With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?|
|Áh! ás the heart grows older||5|
|It will come to such sights colder|
|By and by, nor spare a sigh|
|Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;|
|And yet you wíll weep and know why.|
|Now no matter, child, the name:||10|
|Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.|
|Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed|
|What heart heard of, ghost guessed:|
|It ís the blight man was born for,|
|It is Margaret you mourn for.|
|Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.|
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
|WHAT does the hangman think about|
|When he goes home at night from work?|
|When he sits down with his wife and|
|Children for a cup of coffee and a|
|Plate of ham and eggs, do they ask||5|
|Him if it was a good day’s work|
|And everything went well or do they|
|Stay off some topics and talk about|
|The weather, base ball, politics|
|And the comic strips in the papers||10|
|And the movies? Do they look at his|
|Hands when he reaches for the coffee|
|Or the ham and eggs? If the little|
|Ones say, Daddy, play horse, here’s|
|A rope—does he answer like a joke:||15|
|I seen enough rope for today?|
|Or does his face light up like a|
|Bonfire of joy and does he say:|
|It’s a good and dandy world we live|
|In. And if a white face moon looks||20|
|In through a window where a baby girl|
|Sleeps and the moon gleams mix with|
|Baby ears and baby hair—the hangman—|
|How does he act then? It must be easy|
|For him. Anything is easy for a hangman,||25|
|THE MONOTONE of the rain is beautiful,|
|And the sudden rise and slow relapse|
|Of the long multitudinous rain.|
|The sun on the hills is beautiful,|
|Or a captured sunset sea-flung,||5|
|Bannered with fire and gold.|
|A face I know is beautiful—|
|With fire and gold of sky and sea,|
|And the peace of long warm rain.|
III. PERSONALITY: MUSINGS OF A POLICE REPORTER IN THE IDENTIFICATION BUREAU
IV. GRIEG BEING DEAD
Sunday, November 06, 2011
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.