It was somewhere in the desert that It Happened. I was hot. My car was hotter. It was running rough, but it was having no trouble running. The caravan pulled me over and told me to open my hood. My car had started smoking nasty white wisps at the same time I'd noticed it running rough. My back bumper was covered with an oily, slimy coating. Transmission fluid was the verdict. It was escaping everywhere despite that I had all the seals on the trannie redone only a month before the trip. So we filled the ever-lovin' transmission with new fluid and made a beeline for a reststop around twenty minutes down Interstate 40 (which runs along the old route 66). There the other Edsel owners jacked it up and determined it was more than just an untightened pan left over from its recent servicing. The transmission was hemorrhaging. Could we get to the next town, Needles California, by five PM? It was 4:10 on Saturday afternoon. Odds were that in a small town there wouldn't be a heck of a lot open on a Saturday night or Sunday. If we didn't make it by five, I might not make it at all.
I didn't hear an orchestrated version of the William Tell Overture as we speed down the freeway. All I heard was the hot wind blowing by my ears. The only difference between that drive and a drive through Hell was that the drive from the rest stop to Needles was hotter. But we got there. We located a transmission shop which said it could have me back on the road by Monday evening. It was next to a $19 a night motel. The Edsel owners offered to take me with them, in their cars, but I didn't feel right leaving EDSEL X alone, in a strange town, in the hands of total strangers who could do and charge me for any damn thing they liked, so I opted to let the caravan go on. I'd catch up with them later. I reluctantly settled into room 8 at the Stardust Motel, a genuine relic of the days of route 66.
It's clear that the current owners of the Stardust Motel have tried to make what they've got into something pleasant. Two sides of the cinderbrick wall of my room are painted a clean white. The third side is painted a brick orange with white "mortar" and the bricks between the mortar feature a white featherlike splay of scribble pattern on top. It looks almost like wallpaper, but it's not. It seems to be applied by some kind of roller stamper. The designs are painted on. Every eight inches or so they repeat, almost-but not exactly. The way the paint does or doesn't adhere to the roller makes each impression slightly different. It's actually a very artistic effect. The forth wall is dark wood panel, the kind that was epidemic in blue collar rumpus rooms from the mid sixties through the mid-seventies. Whoever put the paneling on was decidedly not into decorator effects. At the bottom of the wall is a heater. Rather than take the trouble to measure and cut around its shape, they have ended the board above that level and filled in the bottom with random scrap paneling. Not a really aesthetic effect. There's a lamp in the room that's can best be described as a Brady Bunch reject, finished the old seventies favorite color: snake vomit green. Next to the lamp is an opulent royal red velvet curtain which is heavy and far too long for the space. Left in its intended position, it hangs over the air conditioner blowers, preventing the cold air from getting into the room. It must be propped open for the air conditioning to work but it is too heavy to stay propped and keeps falling back over the fan.
Everything's clean and neat as one can get someplace that old and worn. There are no bugs but it's a scruffy and battered down place. First off, it kinda smells funny. Not like anything died recently, but it smells a little bit of tobacco, a little bit of stale and overheated air. The door lock is mangled. It still works but you can see it is broken. The TV is missing its channel knob. The door to the bathroom is missing two feet of its trim. Nothing quite fits in the bathroom. The fixtures don't quite sit flush to the walls anymore. The sink has a stick propping it up to make sure it doesn't sag. It's a clean stick. Perhaps it was the door trim before it became the sink-brace. The bathroom walls are texture coated in a way that suggests someone was covering up mortar from removed tiles. The bed has a spread of primary blue on it to go with this red curtain, green lamp, and rust wall. And the carpet: I never figured out what color it was despite hours of studying it in daylight and night light. My best guess is pink and blue speckles floating on a beige background but that could be wrong. It was some color once upon a time. In any event, no color appears in more than one place, on the carpet, or anywhere else in the room. The whole room is dark too. Two isolated lamps are intended to illuminate the whole place. Neither of them shine anywhere close to where one would read something so unless you want to stand at the TV or lean onto the nightstand, extensive reading is not an entertainment option in the room. Still, it's not a bad room. Besides, I tell myself, I'm only going to be there a short time.
To call the neighborhood scruffy would be paying a compliment to that term. It's more than scruffy. It's downright seedy. Scruffy would be if it had a mattress abandoned on the sidewalk. This neighborhood has two abandoned mattresses, one of which has been burned. The motel has an ice chest that's not an ice chest. It says so in case you should want to know. It has a sign on it that clearly says that the ice chest is for hotel guests only. Then says "Do not open. This is not an ice chest". They're right. It's not an ice chest. I opened it, despite the "do not" instruction, and found it to be a warped and empty case. No ice. Just a chest.
Directly beyond the Stardust Motel is what I shall call the Stardust appliance junkyard. It is a yard filled with washers and dryers and air conditioners. I never knew there were junkyards for air conditioners but apparently there is at least one in Needles California. It is next to the Stardust Motel.
Behind that is the auto shop, open "7AM-?" it says. The reason it says to a question mark rather than to a time is that the employees seem to live there-I kid you not. I went back to visit my car at sundown, out of boredom, and a dozen men plus two dogs were hanging out and having beers. (Alright, I admit, the dogs didn't have any beer. They were just yipping about ankles). Most of the men looked like refugees from a homeless shelter that had closed the week before. Shaving and bathing was not a big item on their priority lists. Some of their coveralls had grease that might have come from the mastodons that fell into the LaBrea Tar Pits. It was that old and dried. One of the men stepped into a van with sheets over the windows and I realized it was not a junked car and it was not waiting for parts to be fixed. That was his home. There were other trashed vehicles in that yard, many with Oklahoma plates. Was this an omen? The closest I would get to Tulsa would be an auto shop in Needles? Strange, that of all the states in the union, the plates at this shop were for the state I was headed to. Maybe that was a good omen, not a bad one. They offered me a beer. I declined politely. I joked about what a sucky Saturday night it must be if they didn't even want to go home. But they didn't seem to get my joke. Then I started to catch on.
I was not in your usual auto fix it shop. There was a reason the sign said cash only. No credit cards. No checks. There was a reason the people were there on a Saturday night, not doing any work. There was a reason for all the extra cars in the yard. There was even a reason the shop has posted a letter from the Needles postmaster declaring them a legitimate business. (I'd never even seen a letter from a postmaster declaring any business legitimate. But there's one in Needles California and I was there). The place was a combination auto shop and campout ground. The guy who looked like an unbathed homeless guy WAS an unbathed homeless guy. This was getting really strange.
Still, they all seemed eminently likable. But I hoped my car would be done real soon.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Sunday, July 28: Day 2
I figured out just WHAT my motel room smells of: salami. Don't ask me how or why. I don't HAVE any salami. The room certainly doesn't come with salami. But that's what it smells of when I open the door.
The good news is that the car will be fixed. The bad news: for $1100. The transmission only marginally holds fluid. I don't know why. Bob Durkee had just done the seals and it had seemed to work fine. But I witnessed myself that it wasn't holding fluid. Instead the red oil was spilling out like blood. So I'm stuck here another 24 hours-probably until Monday night or Tuesday mid-day. Then, car willing, I'll beeline it for Tulsa on the Interstate, 1200 miles away. That's not really too far.
So, for now I'm here in Needles. In the faded Stardust Motel. Watching CNN's Olympic bomb coverage followup. That coverage was interesting at midnight 24 hours ago, when the bomb went off. Tonight, it's all rehash, and rehashed reruns of past events are dull. So I switch to NBC which has nothing but the Olympics on it. There are a lot of really dull Olympic events. There's one where bicyclists ride around in a circle while the camera sits in front of a tree, waiting for a cyclist to go by. When one does, the camera sits and waits for the next one, which, not surprisingly, looks exactly like the other one during the four seconds it whooshed by. Between events NBC shows reruns of the park bombing, which is just as dull on NBC. When I get too bored with that, I go back to CNN. Then I boredly turn the set off. I can't go for a walk. It's too hot. I took one after lunch, in search of a Sunday paper. There wasn't one that I could find. Just hotels, gas stations, and a homeless woman. And searing heat. The TV cable company gives the current temperature in the lower corner of the TV much like NBC and CNN put their logos on the edge of each screen. It never seems to drop below 110 degrees, not even at midnight. The devil himself stayed here to take a seminar when he designed the climate control system for Hell.
Surprisingly the food's quite good (though very American-not at all an oriental style Chinese). But I like it. Everything was fresh. What was supposed to be crisp was crisp. What was supposed to be warm, was warm. It's air conditioned and it's different from NBC's Olympics coverage and CNN's coverage of the Bombs of Atlanta and flight 800, which seem to be the only news on CNN July 29, 1996.
The couple gave the homeless lady a free bowl of soup when she asked for one. I met her sitting on the curb this morning when I was walking back from visiting my car. I expected her to ask for spare change when she spoke to me. Instead she asked for a cigarette. "Sorry, I don't smoke," I answered as politely as possible. When I said that, she looked genuinely sad. The worst thing about having no money, she explained to me, was how much she longed for a pack of cigarettes.
Everybody smokes around here. The guy with only a pair of trunks (no shirt, no shoes) who lives in the dilapidated motorhome on the far side of the transmission shop, comes into the shop every now and then for a butt. The shaved-headed fellow whose shop it is, gives him one each time, but grumbles and explains to me that the guy never-ever buys his own.
I've now figured out which of the vehicles on the transmission shop lot are "houses" and which are broken motorhomes. My favorite of the "houses" is the Dixie trailer because it has a sense of style. Instead of a sheet, it has a confederate flag over its window, plus bright blue paint and stickers on it outside. It's as scruffy as the rest of the them, but there's a cared-for element to its scruffiness. Somebody actually PLACED every broken and bedraggled decoration on it, there.
The homeless lady and I finished lunch about the same time as each other. She is a very polite homeless-not at all like the big city kind. She remarked to me that the soup was very good as we exited. I agreed. I'd had the same soup as part of my meal.
As I sit here the TV continues to bore me. I have trouble hearing it too, no matter how loudly I turn it up. First off, the air conditioner makes a racket. It's an old wall-mounted "window" unit which appears to have been added to the motel sometime after the demise of Route 66. Whether it is set to high or low, is irrelevant. It makes the same loud drone at all times. Shut it off, and the room starts to get too warm within minutes. So it stays on all the time, day and night, and day again. Just across the street is the train track-a veritable freeway of containerized shipping. If a freight train isn't going by on any given moment, one, possibly even two, soon will. Their diesel engines buzz even louder than the air conditioner as they creep by. Then there's the problem with the TV itself. Its sound is harsh and bass-heavy, making it hard to understand all but the clearest speech. I know there's nothing wrong with my hearing but I feel the same frustration as the partially deaf as I try to watch the TV. I just can't understand everything they're saying. As a consequence, I can only guess at what is going on.
I've really had enough intimate study of Needles in July 1996. I don't need to experience any more. I want out. But I know I've got at least one more day.
Day 3, Monday, July 29
Still in Needles, waiting for 0U11W702084.
It gets hot here early. Between the time, just after dawn, that I walked out the door to the Chevron station, and returned with a Hawaiian Punch, it gained three degrees to make it 107. I've had more than enough of Needles California. I really, really, want to leave. Now.
Day 4, Tuesday, July 30
The transmission is back and assembled but the torque converter is nowhere in sight. So I'm stuck here another day. What fun. The shaved-headed guy who owns the transmission shop took off on mid-morning Monday. The elderly guy who actually rebuilt my transmission got into Needles on Sunday night. On Monday morning a polite and portly fellow began sitting at the desk of the transmission shop. I had assumed that he'd been away for the weekend but he tells me that Monday morning had been his first day at this, his new job. The shaved-headed guy is indeed the shop owner. They barely met when the owner took off. The guy who rebuilt my transmission worked his first day on Monday. Geez-I've been at the shop twice as long as all the employees. I've been waiting four days, they've only worked there two! The guy at the desk isn't sure what he's supposed to do when my transmission is finished because he really didn't get to meet the owner, except for those two hours or so. What am I supposed to do? Wait until this guy whose name and whereabouts are unknown gets back, so he can tell his new employees if it is okay to complete my car? I'm sure I'm in Hell and the Devil is laughing his guts out at me. I go back to the motel and ask the owner if she can find out about bus service to Flagstaff or Las Vegas. I don't care which, just a bus out of Needles into someplace with a plane that goes to Tulsa. Any place other than Needles will do.
The woman who runs the motel is from India. She lives with an American husband who seems to be much older than her, and an elderly woman in a sari who is her mother, I assume. There's also a man her age or so, who appears to be of Indian extraction. He lives in the room next door to mine and rides a motorcycle off to work every morning-her brother, perhaps? They are all very nice and very laid-back people. You'd have to be to own a motel in Needles California during mid-July. She agrees that if my car isn't done on Wednesday she will take me to the Needles Greyhound station. One way or another I'm leaving Needles tomorrow, with or without OU11W702084.
There was lots of lightening in the sky on the afternoon of July 30, thunder, dark clouds on the horizon, even a rainbow-but no rain. Just before the sun went down, off went the electricity. Surprise! I'd been sitting in my room, appliqu‚ing a t-shirt design and watching NBC, the Olympic gymnasts' last individual event, and my TV screen went dark. It just folded up in a little square and vanished in a little center dot. The air conditioner went off. The 60 watt bulbs in my room went off. It was strange and sudden, so I poked my nose outside. It was still hot. Way hot. There were half a dozen other noses also peering out. "What happened?" I asked one.
"I dunno," came a reply.
"The electricity is off," said another. (Duh, I knew that. I kinda had a more detailed answer in mind).
"Did we blow a circuit breaker," I asked "or is it the neighborhood?"
"I don't know," answered a young college age boy.
"Why don't you walk next door and see if they have electricity," I advised. "If they do, we blew a circuit. If they don't, it's a neighborhood power failure." I wasn't walking anywhere in the heat out there. Let the teenager do it.
The teenager sauntered off to the building on our east which was also a car repair place. He and his grandfather, I would later find out, were also here because of car problems. Their car was being fixed at that shop.
"Nothing," he replied when he came back. "They've also got no electricity". While he was gone Hui's restaurant put up its closed sign. The Chevron station stopped letting cars pull in and closed its doors. Faster than you could say "I think we just had a power failure," everyone in Needles locked their doors and ended their business day. No matter if they were a 24 hour operation. They shut down and the employees went home. Nobody waited to see if power would come back on in a few minutes. They all knew it wouldn't. The Indian lady confirmed that this happened a lot in Needles. Last time the electricity went out, had been only the week before. That one had lasted four hours. No telling how long this would be. As the sun went down, the temperature in my room went up, and finally, I came out to the parking lot of the building where the Citizens Utilities had failed. Everything in Needles is called Citizen's. There's no GTE or AT&T. Their phone book says Citizen's Telephone. Their TV is Citizen's Cable. And yes, the electric company is really called Citizen's Utilities. And when citizen's electricity goes out, so does the TV and phone lines because they don't have any power either.
Except for the crickets, there was nothing working in Needles California. No soda machines. No street lights. The only lights were from the headlamps of cars. Curiously there was not one car on the freeway passing overhead. There was nothing happening. Nothing at all.
The lady from India offered to bring us ice and I brought out my big fluorescent flashlight that I'd been keeping in my room so I could read at night. We all sat around in a circle as if we were at a strange summer camp and my flashlight became the bonfire. Nobody had any marshmallows but they don't cook well under a fluorescent bulb anyhow. So we all exchanged stories of how we'd gotten there and where we were going. It was almost like a party-a very strange party for my last night. Little by little we began to get news of what had happened. Yes, the whole town was out. The freeway was closed. A diesel had hit the town's transformer and brought it down across the freeway. Until the truck could be cleared up and the pole removed from across the road, there would be no electricity for any of us. The closure of Interstate 40 made for a giant traffic snarl as motorists, stuck for hours without moving, began to pull off into the darkened town. They'd see us gathered in the parking lot, pull in and ask us what was happening. Their questions and answers were our primary source of information. Each visitor told us a little bit of information as they asked questions, which we managed to put together to understand what was going on. Part of Needles is in California. The other part is across the Colorado River in Arizona. The Arizona side had electricity. One team of our compatriots drove off to a bar on the Arizona side though what they needed with a bar was beyond comprehension. Judging by the exuberant giggling of the woman and the loud behavior of her two men, they'd had enough to drink hours earlier. A man, who was leaving his home in Texas for a new job in San Jose, decided to pull into our parking lot rather than sit in the traffic. He had a case of Coca Colas in his car which he shared with us all. The Indian lady brought out plastic cups and more ice cubes. A second traveler asked if he could park in our lot. We said sure but after he found out from us, what was going on, he didn't stay long. One elderly man, on his motorcycle, had stopped in just hours earlier, a victim of heat exhaustion that day. He hadn't noticed how hot and dehydrated he had gotten driving across the dry, windy desert until he stopped for gas and couldn't talk, and couldn't understand what had happened to him. He checked into a room and took a shower, then he said he took a nap. He said that when he woke up, it was like he'd wet the bed except he was drenched in sweat, not urine. With awe, he explained how he had gotten into trouble without feeling anything, and how his stop off had saved his life. He said he was convinced he would have passed out while riding his motorcycle, and died.
The grandson and grandfather each told their stories. The grandfather had given the boy an old car of his to take away with him to college in the fall, except the car had broken down and been towed into Needles. If it wasn't done tomorrow, they'd call another family member to come get them as they were only going to central California. I Forget if it was San Bernardino or Redlands, but it was some big rural city on the way.
The homeless woman (of cigarette-bumming fame) joined our circle. She was welcome in our little circle of fluorescent light. She told us about how much she loved watching the Olympics, all sports really. She never said how she'd come to be there. There was also a strange little girl who had the body of a young woman, but was clearly not a woman inside. She talked about how her mother lived right there in Needles but she seemed to live in the motel. Her story didn't make much sense. She was either a twelve-year-old child in a 19 year old's body or a retarded teenager. I'll never know which.
One of the mechanics from the transmission shop came over too and commiserated with us, remarking that he had only nine more months to spend in Needles before he could go back to Oklahoma where he'd come from. Since it seemed like a strange statement I jokingly asked who had sentenced him to Needles. "Nobody," he explained. As terms on his probation he only had to stay in Riverside County, not Needles specifically. At that point I decided not to ask what crime he was on probation for.
We talked about everything and anything, even speculating on why there were a flurry of gallows humor about the crash of the Valuejet plane in Florida yet zero jokes about flight 800 in New York. What was the difference between the two crashes? Both killed everybody yet one was treated with a reverence, the other with flippancy.
When the power came back on, late that night, I did some mathematical calculations. From Needles to Tulsa was 1,118 miles. That would take 22 hours driving time and not get me into Tulsa until 10 PM Thursday at the earliest. At that point I would be too tired to enjoy the Edsel event. So the Edsel, fixed or not, would not be coming with me to Tulsa. If it was fixed, it would be driving to the Las Vegas or Flagstaff airport and waiting for me. If it was not, I was going to Las Vegas by Greyhound bus to catch a plane.
I give up. I give up. I completely give up. One minute they tell me the converter is coming on the 10 AM UPS shipment. At 10:15 they tell me they just talked to the driver and it is in Arizona, on a truck, be there by noon. The story keeps changing but the car doesn't. I surrender. I'm going to the Greyhound station. I'll deal with the car after the Edsel show.
Supposedly there's a bus from Needles to Las Vegas at 12:05 PM. At 11 the husband of the lady with the Indian accent takes me to the station. I buy a one way ticket to Las Vegas. Hallelujah. I'm getting out of Needles. I'm going to Tulsa to be with the Edsels as originally planned.
The Greyhound "station" (if you can really call it that) is actually a convenience/liquor store, souvenir shop, photocopy center, toy store, and t-shirt outlet for the town. (What! No Post Office. I feel gypped). It's right next to the one and only other place I'd ever been in Needles-the Needles Point Pharmacy. (Actually I was never in the Pharmacy. We gleefully took its picture back in 1988 when we drove the Edsel from Pennsylvania to California-the only other time I had ever been to Needles in my life). Small world. Here I am back at Needles Point.
So what do people do in the Needles Greyhound-Photocopy-Conveinience Store? They come in and buy lottery tickets, it seems. You can't quite see what a booming business in lottery tickets they do because it's subtle. One person comes in and buys a ticket. Then another person comes in and buys. No two are there together so it doesn't seem to be this huge volume but it is a steady stream of one buyer, then another buyer, and still another lottery buyer. In fifteen minutes I counted 7 people. Then I got bored of counting them and gave up.
The other thing that the people do at the Needles Greyhound station is wait. Needles is not on Pacific Standard Time, or even Pacific Daylight Time. It runs on Needles Substandard time and the buses that pick up in Needles run on that time too. Five minutes after twelve is an optimistic version of when the bus will get there. Even twelve-thirty is ahead of Needles time. The bus doesn't arrive until 12:35 and it doesn't say Greyhound. It says K-T Services. But it's a beauty. I get on and find only about 5 other people riding. It is clean and cool, full of wide, plush airline style seats. It's decorated in a gray and rainbow theme. It's quiet. Has its own bathroom. I'm convinced it's going to be a wonderful trip. It takes me out of town on a strange sightseeing tour of Needles, ending with a drive right up to the Stardust Motel, down T Street and past the Edsel, which is now in the yard, no longer in the transmission shop. Either they quit working on it because I was gone or completed it. I don't care which. I'll be back for it in less than a week anyway (I say). It seems strange that the last thing we pass in town ÿ20is my Edsel, but everything's strange on this whole strange vacation. Everything's strange in Needles.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Between Needles and Laughlin Nevada there is almost nothing civilized, just grey-beige sand and rocks and distant cliffs and heat lightning. Not much is green. From the window of the K-T bus, the Nevada/California landscape could be Martian. It's that desolate and strange. But I'm feeling good, because every second I sit in the bus, I'm one second further away from Needles. Besides, the bus interior is a perfectly air-conditioned seventy-two degrees.
There are only five passengers on the K-T bus, a hyper little boy who keeps changing seats every thirty seconds; his sister, who keeps yelling at him to shut up, between punches to his gut; their mother, who long ago gave up telling either of them anything, and is sleeping through the sibbling bickering; a Marlboro Man, who never says a word; and me. The other four sit in the front of the bus, so I sit over the rear wheel well, next to what little clothing I have carried with me from the Edsel's trunk, and peacefully watch desolation pass by.
There is one huge green farmland along the way between Needles and Laughlin, but it is a very strange farmland. It is the only green on the whole trip and whoever is in charge is burning it, row by row, grid by grid, so it becomes black land instead of green. Hard to understand the what and why is going on there. No tourguide gets on any loudspeaker to explain.
Which tire is flat? After examining all eight, I enter the Greyhound office and ask him. I can't tell the "flat" one from the other seven. They all look perfect to me.
"It's a slow leak," he explains. "By Las Vegas it WOULD be a flat. But don't you worry, honey" he insists, "I guarantee I can get everyone space on the Greyhound."
Looks like he wants to play in Laughlin rather than drive a bus 'cause his bus DOESN'T have a flat anything. I go back to K-T and wait for the coming Greyhound. It eventually shows up, in an hour or so.
The real Greyhound is dirty and crowded. The air-conditioning only partially works. So it feels warm and muggy and everyone already has the seats taken so we must all split up and evict feet and suitcases to make space for ourselves. I end up seated next to Nick, the seven year old boy, from the K-T bus, who comes from Texas and is going into the second grade. He informs me he's going to visit his grandfather in Las Vegas. He doesn't particularly like his grandfather. Next month his grandfather will be having cataract surgery. His sister Chelsea is going into the fourth grade. She has a big secret. Of course, he has to tell me her secret. She wet the bed one time when they all climbed in with their parents. Nick proceeds to tell me the secrets of every member of his family. Chelsea likes Barbies. She doesn't like the grandfather either. He even starts to tell me how non-Christians are going to burn in Hell. Gawd, this child doesn't shut up. He's been on the bus over 24 hours, hasn't slept, and isn't going to. I've got HOW MANY HOURS to spend with this boy?
When Nick gets tired of talking to me he starts to run up and down the aisles again. Eventually he switches places with his sister Chelsea. "Yup. He never, ever stops talking," she tells me in her pretty Texas drawl. She then tells me about their goats, and that it's true, she really doesn't like this grandfather, or taking Greyhounds. She shows me her fast food mini Barbie. I appreciate Chelsea. She talks a lot too, but at least she carries on a conversation, not a monolog. Plus she doesn't preach Christianity.
When we get to Las Vegas, I can't help but watch from a distance, as Nick and Chelsea and their mother find their grandfather. They've made it. They're at their destination. It's somehow satisfying to watch their hugs, a kind of bittersweet satisfaction, having heard all about how they didn't really like this grandfather. Seeing them unite makes me feel incredibly alone though -not lonely- just totally independent in an isolated way. I'm just getting started on my trip. Where I am is irrelevant. I'm just passing through everyplace. Not only do I know nobody here, but nobody knows I am here. And I'm nowhere near the airport. My next task is to find my way to the airport, to buy a ticket to Tulsa. Somehow I've got to figure that out.
Outside the Greyhound bus depot is a van that says airport transit. It is parked in front of a casino/hotel. But it's locked and nobody is in it. Or near it. Or knows anything about it. It's too hot to stand outdoors in Las Vegas during late July so I alternate standing just inside the well air-conditioned casino, watching it through the glass doors, and standing by the van's doors, hoping whoever parked it will see me and come out. A half dozen other airport transit vans of various descriptions pass by me as I am waiting, but none of them stop, or even come close to stopping. There are no bus stops for them or any other public conveyance that I can see. How I get one is a mystery. I wait. And wait. And wonder.
Eventually a man with a handful of fast food gets on the van. He is decidedly uninterested in seeing me. I knock on the door and he reluctantly opens it. Would you go to the airport, I ask hesitantly. He begrudgingly agrees. I've passed another hurdle. Victory is in sight.
Before I'd left Needles, I had made several phone calls home to Venable, my roommate for the last 19 years, who had gotten on his ISDN line to the internet for me, checking on flight schedules, prices, and such. There were night flights to Tulsa, but the computer said they were not available to me. The earliest available was early morning. All I had to do was buy a ticket. Once I got to the airport, that sounded like it would be easy.
The days of airport lockers ended with events like Locherbie. Thanks to the recent flight 800 investigation, you weren't even allowed to set baggage down any more. If you did, security was supposed to seize it and blow it up. The prospect of having my only clothes in the world blown up as an anti-terrorism measure did not appeal to me. So there I was with my handbag, my camera, my sun hat, and two small backpacks, looking, no doubt, like some strange dotty aunt in a stranger hillbilly movie. But fashion be damned. I knew that one thing you could find plenty of in any airport was automated teller machines. In Las Vegas especially, because the native sport is separating visitors from their bankrolls, I knew that you could find a money machine easily. I was right. It took me almost no time to find one that said First Interstate, a bank that my bank, Wells Fargo, had recently acquired. When I put my card in it greeted me.
Hello Andrea 'Enthal.
I didn't like that. Though 2001 was five years in the future, I felt like I'd just been greeted by Hal. I half expected that overly calm, modulated voice of his to start talking to me, announcing my bank balances in public. Discussing whether or not it thought what I was doing was a good plan. I did not want to have a personal relationship with a computer at the Las Vegas airport. I wanted an anonymous inanimate machine to give me my money and nothing but my money. But Hal 1996 had more to say on its screens.
We're sorry Andrea 'Enthal. We are unable to contact your financial institution.
At that point, I was ready to be institutionalized. I'd made it all the way from Needles to Las Vegas only to be buddy-buddied by a machine that could recognize my name but not my money. It wasn't Hal inside that armor plated box, it was the devil, and he was laughing right in my face. How would I buy a plane ticket to get to Tulsa if I couldn't get any cash?
If I waited fifteen minutes would it be able to contact my financial institution? A California First Interstate could. But I was over the line in Nevada. Perhaps no Nevada First Interstate could access a California Wells Fargo account. Perhaps a great quake had knocked California into the ocean and it would be three days before the computers could even find the state. There was one more thing I could do. I was going to Tulsa, forget Hell, I'd already roomed there, or high water. I had a credit card of my father's in my wallet that was to expire 8/96. It was 5:10 PM on 7/31. My father had not sent me a renewal of it. Did that mean he wanted it to expire on me? In seven hours it would turn into a worthless plastic rectangle. And I'd still be at the Las Vegas airport, unable to get to Tulsa, Los Angeles, or back to Needles. I would use the credit card to buy the plane ticket. He couldn't stop me. He couldn't even get mad at me until after he got the bill, at which point I'd be long out of Vegas, and Tulsa, and even the Edsel would be home.
So I got in the purchase tickets line. Then I discovered something else. It wasn't flights on July 31 that were off limits to me at a reasonable fare as we had concluded using the computer at home. It was any flight within 18 hours of ticket purchase. Instead of 6 AM, the first flight I could get out of Las Vegas was for 11 AM, and it wouldn't go to Tulsa. It would go to Denver. I would then have to wait a few hours there to get a connecting flight. The Edsel meet in Tulsa had already started. I'd missed the first day. Now I knew I'd miss the second too. But I did get a plane ticket and I would get to Tulsa, it would just take time.
Ticket in hand, I began to wander the airport, not exactly homeless, not exactly a waif. But I knew what a homeless waif would've felt like. All I was missing was the shopping cart. I found the airport post office. I found the bathroom. I found out that the money machine could find my financial institution afterall. I also found out that there are no cheap eating places inside the Las Vegas airport. Not even an overpriced candy machine to be found. There are only cheap slot machines. But now that I had cash, and access to more cash, I was not a prisoner of the airport. I'd figured out how to get from the town to the airport. Surely I could reverse that process. I also knew that if you were willing to walk through the casinos, there were incredibly cheap all-you-can-eat buffets inside, along a place they called the Strip. Just about every casino had them. So, it was back to the city for me.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Spending eighteen hours in the Las Vegas airport is certainly preferable to spending even eighteen minutes in Needles. But the only chairs in the Las Vegas airport are occupied or in front of slot machines. The only meals are $20 and up. No snack machines are allowed because they take quarters that the locals would like to see gambled. Spending eighteen hours in the Las Vegas airport, when you can't even temporarily set your bags down because security is supposed to seize them, and you can only sit on the floor, is the pits. So, despite having no interest in gambling, and even less interest in Vegas style entertainment, I was off to glitter city, because unlike the Las Vegas terminal, they have $2 meals and welcome loiterers 24 hours, day and night.
Finding a ride from the airport to the Vegas strip is easy. You walk out the terminal door and there are 12 possiblities in your face. Explaining to the driver that you want to go to the section you once saw, but you don't know the name of any hotel at it, and know nothing of Las Vegas geography, is harder. I was planning to go to Tulsa. I just happened to be passing through Las Vegas on that journey. How was I supposed to know where I wanted to go? The driver of my jitney was not at all amused. He must've thought I was purple with green polkadot antennae and had stepped off my spaceship recently. He looked at me with a condescending glare. I had no suitcase. Instead I had on a sunhat well after sunset, a pack on my back, a camera case around my neck, and two fabric totebags draped over my arms. I had originally packed for a cavernous car trunk, not riding on a bus or plane, and certainly not for carrying anything around. The jitneys are structured to take parties to the poshest of the faux-posh casinos. They weren't intended for anyone like me. A couple which I presumed were honeymooners got on board smoochingly arm in arm and gave the name of the hotel with which they had reservations. Another group mentioned the MGM Grand. I wanted to go to the scruffy section that I'd seen while at the Edsels in Las Vegas car show of March 1996. The signboards there didn't say "NOW PERFORMING: JAY LENO," they said "BRUNCH: $2.99."
"I'll just ride along until I see a place I like, and get off there," I explained to him when he didn't want to take me without a specific destination. I figured someone had to be going somewhere within walking distance of a cheap buffet. I didn't actually care where. I was only wasting time until my plane flight anyhow. Anyplace that wasn't like Needles would be fine. He grumpily agreed. But as the bus began its rounds I discovered that I had a problem. These people weren't going anywhere near the cheap section. The jitney was stopping at one glitzy new gaming palace after another. I could see the crummy section in the distance but we were skirting it completely. With only four other passengers left, I began to worry. No high roller ever hoped as hard as I that one of those two remaining parties was some kind of lowlife. Forget winning any jackpots, I was hoping for cheap eats.
Maybe it was the novelty of my wish, in a town where most everyone else was wishing for big money, or maybe the bus driver always dropped passengers in descending order of destination desirability. Whatever the cause, lady luck smiled at me as soon as I started hoping. The very next passenger wanted a place called Circus Circus and it had one of those "BRUNCH: $2.99" signs. Next to the Circus Circus was an old, semi-dilapidated Travel Lodge. It was so old it didn't even have a casino. That looked like a good place to start.
My luck was turning around now that I'd hit Vegas. Their rooms were not forbiddingly priced. The TV worked, the air conditioning was almost silent, the sink held itself up without any assistance, and even the ice machine offered ice. Funny how a week in Hell will make the most mundane of amenities seem like heaven. A blast of airconditioning later, I was on my way to dinner next door.
There's a Darwinian aspect to the casinos of Las Vegas. The biggest and brightest divide the high rollers. The oldest and least desirable outlets have to find themselves other niches. To my surprise the target audience of Circus Circus turned out to be very young parents with children in tow. I have no idea what Circus Circus was like in its heyday, but it is now sort of a casino Disneyland. On the ground floor are the usual boring slot machines, wheels, and card tables. Every casino has those. The second floor balconies are where it's happening. That's where they teach cherub-faced five and six year olds that they should want to be a greedy avaricious slime buckets when they grow up. It's against the law for minors to gamble. So the payoff for children at Circus Circus is in junky stuffed animals of various sizes. These animals substitute for currency as they can be traded for larger and larger animals as the child wins at assorted midway games that are far more chance than skill. And though the payoff is in animals, entry into any of the games requires the same cash as the slots. You can play a ten cent game or even a dollar game, but each time you play, you have to ante up just like the adults. My favorite game to watch was Chicken in a Pot. For twenty-five cents a chicken, participants get a rubber mallet and a catapult. One sets stuffed Naugahyde "chickens" at one end of this catapult, then hits the other as hard as they can. That propells these chickens at an array of soup pots welded to a fake barbeque grill (complete with imitation charcoal below). The whole time the grill is rotating. One can neither turn the catapult, nor aim the chicken in any meaningful way, so landing a chicken in a pot instead of on the grill is pure luck. Every time one lands a chicken, one gets another of these junky stuffed animals. Three junky animals can be traded for a larger junky animal, and five of those animals can be traded for an even bigger animal that is every bit as crappy as the ones before. One could eventually trade up the animal food chain enough to get a stuffed monstrosity larger than the child who won it (or you could visit the nearest Pic 'N' Save and buy the same thing for $9.99 instead of spending $40 to win it. Your choice).
The other "great" game was the camel racers. (Which also came in a horse and jockey version on the other side of the room, but its movements looked fluid as a camel and jerky as a horse and rider). For this game each child gets a bedouin on a camel, which is propelled along a track on the wall in front the group. The child in lane ten gets camel ten and so on. The game is played by rolling a steel ball up an alley and into holes arranged like bowling pins. That activates a worm gear of some sort which in turn moves the camel a set number of inches. The more rapidly one can roll the ball and get it back again, the more rapidly the camel moves. The first camel to reach the finish line wins. What makes this game so fascinating is that the four to six year olds playing it, never seem to figure this out. And nobody sees fit to explain it to them. So the kids sit there staring, not even trying to roll the ball into the holes. They just keep watching their unmoving camels, hoping it will win them a prize. The barker doesn't help them. She just encourages them to ante up again, maybe this time they'll win she says. Inevitably some twelve-year-old finally decides to join the camel racers. Since he is the only player with a clue how the game works, he wins every time. But since this game also pays off in those crappy stuffed animals, who cares?
When a child wins so many of these stuffed animals that they can no longer handle them in their arms alone, the casino gives them clear plastic trash bags to tote their loot. The five-year-olds don't usually get that many, but the twelve-year-olds tromp around with clear plastic booty sacks big enough to give Santa Claus a hernia. If you think I made a word of this up, visit the midway balcony at Circus Circus in Las Vegas and see it for yourself!
Every thirty minutes the casino also puts on a brief, free circus act. I saw trampoline gymnastics (and thought of the Olympics I had been subjected to watching during my stay in Needles) and tight rope gymnastics before I left.
Down the street there was a game played on the sidewalk with a casino's huge electric sign. It was hooked up to a slot machine of sorts. For no money, one got in line, pressed the oversized button when it came to be your turn, and the slot machine on the sign gave you a three item combo: three cherries, one bell--whatever. Every push won a prize, be that 5 free chips, a free drink, a coupon book, or one dollar in cash. The catch being, to redeem your prize, you had to go inside the casino. It was actually quite a clever promotion. It was fun to watch somehow. Despite that it was 10:00 and in 100 degree heat, they had a line a half a block long waiting to win. I eventually got too hot and sweaty to wander anymore, or watch the never-ending stream of people actually become excited about winning a drink, and went back to my hotel room. For the first time on my summer vacation I wasn't bored, angry, frustrated, depressed, sweltering, or worried. I had my ticket and I was going to Tulsa to be with the Edsels come morning.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Everybody has to go to Denver. It doesn't matter if you're coming from San Francisco or Seattle or Las Vegas and it doesn't matter where you wish to go. You're all going to Denver. And when you get there, you're all going to wait. And wait. And wait. Since everybody has to go to Denver, the Denver airport ends up packed with people, far more people than there are little vinyl-covered fiberglass contour chairs. And every one of those people doesn't want to be in Denver. There were three gates connected to the lobby where my Tulsa flight would depart from. The flight schedule was designed to have only one group of people using that lobby at a time. But my connecting flight was late, an earlier flight had been cancelled, and a third group of people were there for some reason I never ascertained. Since I'd been milling around for 24 full hours since I'd left Needles, the prospect of standing and milling some more didn't appeal to me. So I plunked myself on the floor with my camera case, hat, backpack, and and tote bags. But with that many people there was no place to sit that wasn't in somebody's way. In my case I was in the wrestling arena for two little Japanese brothers. They didn't speak a word of English. I don't speak Japanese. Their parents could speak both and would occasionally tell them to stop whatever the Japanese call rough-housing, but they didn't actually watch that the boys obeyed, and the boys were bored silly--quite literally. They giggled and pushed and tripped over my hat, shoved each other onto my camera case, and even fell onto me. Between the milling adults and the wrestling children, I couldn't wait for the plane to arrive. Since everybody is shunted to Denver, every flight departing Denver seemed to end up overbooked. When not enough people volunteered to be bumped, they began calling passengers to the boarding desk by name. Luckily, they didn't call me. Because I was determined to get to Tulsa. I'd missed the first two days of the car meet already. I wasn't going to miss a third. As requested I got a window seat. My window had a view of the engine complete with ultra stereo sound and vibrations to match. Forget seventies sensurround (which was used on disaster films such as Earthquake). No movie theater could have matched the experience of that plane. If I'd wanted to carry on a conversation with my sardine-wedged seatmates they couldn't have heard it--but we could all feel the thrust of those engines. They were getting a workout. We could also get to the bathrooms. They were the only things further back in the tail of the plane than our seats.
When we landed in Tulsa, I still had some residual hearing. But the local time was ten minutes after five. Unlike Las Vegas, Tulsa isn't a 24 hour city. It runs nine to five. Only one car rental counter was staffed with people. Every other merchant had packed it up for the night. There were no jitneys waiting in line outside or even taxis. There were no bus stops. There was no clue what I should do. And though it wasn't really hot, it was as muggy as a sauna in front of the terminal. I had made it all the way from Needles on my own. Now I was stumped. What could I do? I'd never laid eyes on Tulsa before. I didn't know where the hotel was. I didn't know its phone number. I only knew its name. In my effort to bring just those absolute essentials I could hand carry, I'd left most of my clothes and papers in my trunk. Timidly I approached the rental car people. I didn't want to rent a car but since they were the only human beings in sight, did they know anything about how one gets to the Tulsa Sheraton? They directed me to a collection of wall pockets, each containing driving instructions to the major hotels of the town. But my car was in Needles. I didn't have anything to drive there. I couldn't rent a car because my credit card had turned into a worthless peice of plastic at the stroke of midnight. I had minimal cash. So I resignedly studied the paper. It had a phone number. At worst I could get one of the other Edsel owners to come to the airport and pick me up. I didn't know anybody who lived in Tulsa but I knew two dozen people at the car show. So I called the number and explained my problem. They said their van would meet me out front of the terminal in twenty five minutes. No charge.
If there's a citified part of Tulsa, I never saw it. My only view of that metropolis was during the ride in that van. I saw an expanse of freeway under blue midwestern skies which stretched from one horizon to the other. Their rush hour drivers weaved and snaked through traffic exactly like the frantic, homeward-bound workers of every other state. They never paused to absorb the vastness of the weedfields along the sides of that freeway the way I did. Tulsa looked just like Los Angeles only it was flat and sticky. But the van was perfectly air conditioned. And the young van driver was a southwestern gentleman. I, a woman who drives to the corner newspaper rack, and drives back, had made it nearly 2000 miles without my car. It was a bittersweet victory. This was a car show I was going to. So I checked in at the front desk and got the keycard to my room. I would put my things away and see what was going on.
My room had three genuine down pillows on the bed, wrapped in clean white cases, and three foam ones in the closet for those with feather allergies. There was a real blanket under the bedspread, not just a sheet, and the air-conditioning never needed to be adjusted. It was somehow perfect naturally. The furniture was classic colonial reproduction. No Salvation Army rejects there. It looked like the kind of furniture I'd grown up with in my parent's expensive homes. The TV worked. It had a show about introducing your youngsters to firearms straight out of a militia handbook. The people who made it clearly valued God, country, and bullets (though not necessarily in that order). It offered a glimpse into a whole different value system than I had ever known. That television screen also featured continual tornado updates (the storms were threatening Oklahoma City, not Tulsa, but the TV station was either a OKC one relayed via cable or the cities share tornado warnings. I'm not sure).
Every morning the hotel staff left a newspaper at my doorstep. Unfortunately it was the dumbed-down generic USA today. I wished it were a local paper so I could get some sense of the city I had come to visit, but that was not to be. Still, I had gone from hell to heaven. Even the swimming pool was part of a tropical fantasyland. Part of it was indoors and part of it was outdoors. An underwater passage connected the two halves. My room had an iron and ironing board. On the next floor there was even a laundry room that didn't require quarters (for drying your swimming gear after your dip). Best of all, my window was perched right above the car show parking lot and ten 1960 Edsels had arrived--the most I had ever seen at one time in my life. One was even the exact color of my own. I was surrounded by friends and cars just like mine. Was it worth the adventure? You bet. Would I do it again? Not a chance.
The Edsel Owners Club was not the only group enjoying the Tulsa Sheraton that weekend. There was some kind of Little League regional championship going on when I got there. There were more ten to twelve year old boys in that hotel than in all of Tulsa's elementary schools. They had come from other cities and states, some with their parents and little sisters or brothers, others with just the coach and team members. They roamed the hallways like herds of young elephants. You could hear them coming a floor away. They weren't badly behaved. Their giggling and shouting on the way to and from the pool area and up and down the hallways was just boyish exhuberance, but judging by the sounds I heard inside my hotel room, they all had really big feet.
The best group to share the hotel with us were hot air balloonists whose specialized vehicles were often as interesting as our nearly forty-year-old cars. Many of them drove vans or pickups with slogans or stickers relating to the ballooning hobby. One balloonist carried his tanks and basket in a converted U-Haul with the words: "CAUTION! BALLOON CHASE VEHICLE This Vehicle Makes Sudden Stops With Numerous Indecisions" painted across the back. I had seen hundreds of Edsels of every style and color in my lifetime. I hadn't seen an inflatable flying sneaker or dinosaur balloon before.
But my problems were not over. As the car show began to wind down, I discovered I had no way home. The people I had started to caravan with, on the way to Tulsa, said they were not going back my way. There were no New Mexico or Arizona plates on the show cars. There wasn't even anyone headed to Denver. Friends from Fullerton California who had brought their 1959 convertible were going north, not west. They would not return to California for another month. I wasn't sure my car had been repaired yet. I couldn't stay at the Tulsa Sheraton one minute beyond my pre-paid reservation. It was too expensive. I had only one ride offer. It came from a fellow headed to New Jersey--1,500 miles in the wrong direction. Somehow I would have to make that work: the Christopher Columbus circomnavigational path home. So I did the unthinkable. I called my parents. They live in southeastern Pennsylvania, a hop, skip and jump before the New Jersey state line. I hadn't seen them since they'd visited my California home in 1991 (the occasion being its purchase). I hadn't spoken to them in years either. And I wasn't sure they weren't mad at me. Afterall my father had let that credit card expire without even dropping me a memo to tell me what I'd done to deserve that. I'd seen their current home once, a decade or more earlier. I knew its location only by a mailing address. Someplace named Conshohocken Road, wherever that was. I had no reason to believe they were there or would be there. It was summer. They could be on vacation just like me. But I dialed their number, and waited as the phone rang, to see if they would answer it. All I got was their machine.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Sitting in the opulent splendor of my Tulsa hotel room on Saturday afternoon, I began to understand just how Cinderella had felt at 11:57 PM. My coach had already turned into a pumpkin. That's what had gotten me into the predicament in the first place. Now I had a deadline every bit as stringent as her midnight curfew. If I did not get my route home planned by the start of the awards banquet that evening, I would be stuck in Tulsa without a way to get back at all. The credit card my father had given me had an expiration date of 8/96 and it was 8/96. So I couldn't use that. There was a money machine across the street from the hotel but it would only dispense $200 a day and the daily hotel fee was $100. That was a one step forward for every two steps back. By the time I could withdraw enough money from the machine to pay for a plane ticket to Los Angeles, I'd be broke. That was not a plan. If I went to New Jersey the plane fare would be higher, not lower. Plus I had to pay for the repairs to my car in Needles and they only took cash. (Heck cash, after the week I'd spent there I was convinced that just cash wasn't good enough. That was the kind of shop that only took small unmarked bills). I was really more baffled than hurt about the credit card situation. My father had said it was only for emergencies. And I had only used it when he specifically authorized me to. I had NEVER used it for my own whim. So why had he let it expire without even a postcard explaining his reason? The only answer I could imagine was that he was mad at me. But for what? I had no idea. I surely wasn't about to ask him. I'd learned that lesson fifteen years earlier in a fiasco where my mother was eavesdropping on a telephone conversation between my father and I. I hadn't been let in on the secret that the financial arrangement between my father and I was a secret from my mother. But I knew better than to potentially do it again. I couldn't be sure she knew that credit card existed so I couldn't acknowledge its existence in any medium she might come across. So there I sat in the perfect hotel room that had the perfect air conditioning, looking out into the parking lot where the world's most perfect Edsels were parked in the ickiest and stickiest of summer humidity, considering my options (which were essentially cross your fingers and hope it all works out). If it didn't, I still had the backup of the awards dinner microphone to ask local Edsel owners if they could help me. But once that banquet was over, all the locals were leaving. If I didn't know exactly what I was doing at the end of that banquet, this wasn't just going to be my summer vacation in hell, this was going to be my canoe tour of the sewage treatment plant there.
One thing I knew, no matter how things turned out, I was going to have to carry all the things I had brought with me to Tulsa, back with me. Since I'd packed for a car trunk, I hadn't brought any kind of luggage. Things would go much easier on my way to wherever I was going if I at least had a zippered bag. Across the street from the hotel was a shopping center with a discount store. I'd already discovered that store had one dollar backpacks. So I trotted across the Great Sticky to score one. While I was away, it happened...voicemail. My father got home and called me back at the hotel number I had left. His soft little voice was waiting for me. Sure I was welcome. He'd spring for my return plane ticket from Philadelphia International, absolutely. But how in hell did his California daughter end up in Oklahoma? He didn't sound the slightest bit mad.
So now I knew what I was doing. I could enjoy the Edsel convention once again. I was heading to Pennsylvania in the back seat of a Ford Escort from New Jersey, with two other people plus luggage. It wasn't exactly the vehicle I would've picked for a three day journey but it was air conditioned. That was good enough.
For reasons that I never knew, the route chosen between Oklahoma and Pennsylvania went through Tennessee and North Carolina (neither of which is between Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, but what the heck. When one is hitching a ride one says "thank-you" to those who provide it, not "how come you are going 400 miles the wrong way?") On that ride I saw my first kudzu, a plant that had not yet been imported when I had moved to away from the east. I saw a lifetime supply of kudzu. In fact I saw whole sections of roadside forest that seemed to be nothing but shrines to the holy kudzu. Where once a 200 foot oak tree stood was now 200 feet of kudzu vine. Kudzu doesn't kill the plants it grows on. It just covers their every square inch with its dense leaves. The inability to get any light once they are engulfed in kudzu kills them, leaving forest after forest with nothing but kudzu vine. We were supposed to go through Maryland but made some wrong turn in Virginia and ended up in Delaware for 30 minutes (that's how long it takes to drive through all of Delaware) before heading to Pennsylvania. We even accidentally picked the correct interstate exit to get to my parents home. When I called my father to ask directions to where the mythic Conshohocken Road might be, he informed me that if I just went straight from where I was, I'd cross it. Not everything went wrong on this trip.
Once at my parents, my first call was to my roommate, Venable, who hadn't heard from me since the night before I'd taken the bus out of Needles. He was surprised I was in Pennsylvania and not at all pleased with my plans. I wanted him to drive out to Las Vegas in my Taurus that Saturday, pick me up at the airport for the 90 mile trip to Needles and caravan with me while I drove the Edsel home-just in case. That part of my plan didn't bother him. It was the timing-the Saturday night. "If I'm going to have a family emergency," he declared, "I don't want to waste my weekend on it. What good is a sudden emergency if it doesn't get you out of going to work?" I re-figured so the "emergency" could land on a Wednesday. We'd both fly into LV with planes co-ordinated at the same time on Tuesday night. We'd rent a car and return it when we got to Los Angeles. It would be his special mid-week holiday. As for the credit card, my father hadn't replaced it because it hadn't expired. The designation 8/96 didn't mean the first day of August. It meant the last day. It had been good all along. Of course if I had known that, I would never have gone to Pennsylvania at all. I would never have made two new friends or seen kudzu. Even my mother, who is a difficult person at best, seemed to be on her company behavior. It was all working out. I called the car place in Needles. Yes, they said, the car was ready. No, they didn't mind if it stayed another week or two. No extra storage charge.
What could go wrong next? Plenty. I was still on that same summer vacation and I was headed back to Hell.
TO BE CONTINUED...
"This will all fit under the seat in front of me," I repeated. My previous experience with airline employees had taught me that they could be reasoned with. But this Philadelphia fellow could not. He pulled me out of line and demanded I rearrange it to all fit in only two containers. It couldn't. But I shuffled what I could into the backpack, put the hat on my head, and continued to argue that counting my handbag and camera as carry-on luggage was unfair. When every other person had finally boarded the plane he relented and finally let me enter, having made whatever administrative demonstration to the rest of the passengers, he had in mind. I made a mental note never to fly that airline again and wondered if they also offered Xyklon-B in the oxygen masks. I hadn't expected my biggest problem getting home to be a battle over whether I, a paying customer, with ticket in hand, could board the flight because I carried a purse. The flight crew were obviously based in "the city of brotherly love" too. They were curt and crabby. Practically threw the peanuts in your face. Instead of a can of soda per person, they gave out small plastic cups of ice cubes and poured you only what soda would fit in the space not filled by cubes. Though that's a great way to make a twelve ounce can last for fifteen passengers, it wasn't a great way to make friends. But the plane landed on time and Venable was at my gate waiting. We headed down to the car rental floor to get a vehicle for the 90 mile trip to the exotic town of Needles. It was 11 PM. It was also Las Vegas, a city that is even more active at night than in daylight hours.
So when we got to the automobile rental counters there were not only lines snaking halfway to the casinos, there were signs warning that unless you had advance reservations, they were out of cars. Venable was furious. "Why didn't you take care of making a reservation?" he demanded. I shrugged. I'd never heard of car rental agencies that were out of cars-all seventeen of them? C'mon. This was Vegas. What were the odds against that? Furthermore, the counter clerks all said that their cars could not leave Las Vegas. Even if we waited until the next day, we could not rent a car which we could take to Needles from anyone at that airport. This was the pits.
Reluctantly we headed for the same Travelodge I'd stayed at during my first Las Vegas stopover three weeks earlier. We took the same kind of jitney, but this time I knew to say the name of Circus Circus as the stop designation. Venable, being a quick study, had learned from the rental car example and called the Travelodge from the airport to reserve a room there, which was smart because drop-ins were being told they had no vacancies by the fellow at the front desk. Next he got five dollars worth of quarters, not for gambling, but for use at the pay phones. Our impossible mission for first thing in the morning (which we had no choice but to accept) was to find a vehicle that we could drive to Needles and return in Los Angeles. Then Venable got a bucket of ice and two sodas from the vending machine outside our hotel room. (Despite the time, the temperature was still over a hundred degrees in Las Vegas). We drank the sodas to cool down, then each crawled into our separate beds.
The next morning, after one of those "ALL YOU CAN EAT, $2.99" breakfasts, we were off to our version of the slots: a bank of telephones by Circus Circus's front lobby. With a phone book borrowed from our hotel room, we began calling around Las Vegas to find a vehicle we could rent. We put the quarters in, dialed our numbers, and were met with rejection after rejection. It was just like gambling but this game was for real. U Haul would rent us a truck but not for today-would we like tomorrow? (No thank-you). The local car rental outlets had only local cars. I struck out completely. But Venable hit our equivalent of a jackpot. It seems I'd been on the right track by trying to rent a car at the airport. That was indeed where you rented a car to take out of state. In fact that was the only place where one could do that. But one couldn't do it at the counters in the terminal. Those were for local rentals. You needed to visit the actual rental center-the place where they kept the cars that weren't on the airport grounds.
There was no charge for a van to take one from the Las Vegas strip to the car rental center. So we checked out of our hotel room and waited to be picked up. Life was getting better. My father had given me a brand new credit card so we had no problem qualifying for any car rental. We were on our way.
They didn't have any compacts or subcompacts to rent us. We had a choice of only full sized cars at full-sized fees. But heck, we were only going to Needles, to get the Edsel and follow it back to Los Angeles. One day only. As long as the vehicle had working air-conditioning, we didn't care. We were not about to quibble over price after all that had gone wrong in the summer vacation from hell. The lady at the counter gave me the keys to what she said was a Taurus. That pleased me quite a bit because I had a Taurus of my own at home. It was either in space 18 or 42 or 67, she explained. She wasn't sure. We should go out back and look for it. We did. We found a car our keys fit parked in space 42 as she had directed. It had the most beautiful Georgia license plates with a big orange peach picture. I liked that car instantly. But it wasn't a Ford Taurus. It was a Mercury Sable. Under no circumstances would I agree to pay even more to have the luxury of a Mercury when a Taurus would do. Besides, they said to take a Taurus from the lot, not a Sable. Given my luck, we'd take the Sable and immediately be pulled over for driving a stolen car. The papers were not in order. I went back to the counter to get the problem straightened out.
"It's the right car," the lady assured me after looking on her computer monitor.
"It's not the right car," I insisted. "Please come with us to the lot and have a look."
The lady reluctantly agreed and when we pointed to the nameplate on it she was as puzzled as we were. The key fit. The plate number matched the contract. But it sure didn't look like a Taurus to her either. Tauruses say Taurus. It's one of those obvious things. With a puzzled look she pulled the car's actual Georgia registration for me to see. There in bold block letters it said the car was a Taurus. Apparently they don't check in Georgia. The damn thing was legally registered as the wrong kind of car and nobody had apparently noticed it.
So we loaded our stuff into the trunk of a our beautiful, new, not-a-Taurus and headed off on the 90 mile trip to Needles. We were running a little late but if all went well we'd have the Edsel home by dinner time. We were starting on our home stretch.
TO BE CONTINUED...
That was a mistake.
The next truck stop/gas station I came to looked perfect for just such activity. On one side of its dusty yard were a half dozen brand new pumps, an air-conditioned snack bar, and a huge sign that said "Towing." On the other side was a trailer-like house with a yard full of tow trucks-nice shiny tow trucks, waiting like buzzards under the desert sun. So I, in the 1960 Clankmobile, and Venable in the not-a-Taurus with Georgia plates pulled off. I was just going to open the hood again and see what I could see. The engine had plenty of oil. I checked. The air filter was in place. Its housing was bolted on and the fan belt was...wait a minute...remember hula hoops? Are the fan belt pulleys supposed to look like they are playing that 1960 game? This was not something I'd ever seen in my engine before. My engine was either dancing the hula or joining the space race. Just beyond its fan belt was this small wheel with what can only be described as the rings of Saturn hanging down. It looked like it was ready to start orbit around the pulley. But when I'd left that car in Needles the pulley had been in one piece. It wasn't supposed to be in two.
There was only one thing to do: Start the engine and watch Saturn's orbit. If that was making the sound, my question was answered. But the Edsel had no intention of answering anything for me. Having finally spun that hoop off, it intended on riding a trailer just like the Tulsa show cars. So despite my cranking and coaxing, it would start-then die out two seconds later. Though it had run for two hours to get to this truck stop on the far outskirts of nowhere, it had no intention of running one minute more.
I didn't figure this was a major problem though. It was a simple one, outside the engine, obviously fixable with whatever wrench one uses to replace a fan belt. Nothing mysterious at all. I had the 100 mile Plus option on my Triple A card for just such eventuality. And I was right there at a tow station. All I'd have to do is show them my card, they'd haul me to the next truck stop, if they didn't have any fan belt pulleys to replace it with on the service truck, and after an hour or so, we'd be back on the road without the hula hoop game.
But it wasn't about to work that way. The people at the tow company said they couldn't take triple A cards and invited me in for a soda and a speech about the politics and (alleged) payoff system of Triple A affiliation. Seems that alliance wanted every tow company in the world BUT theirs. And since they were not just the only tow company around, but also the only humans at this forsaken stretch of desert, I was out of luck. I listened to their tale of unrelenting rejection as politely as I could. When they were finished I asked them for the number to call triple A. Then I asked if I could use their phone. (What? You thought there are pay phones in the middle of the desert? Think again. Tumbleweeds don't make many phone calls). And they (the four humans at the rejected tow company, not the tumbleweeds) would not let me use their telephone. But they would offer me another canned Coke. Eventually they relented and called Triple A for me. Expect a two hour wait, they warned.
TO BE CONTINUED...
The idea of waiting two hours at a gas station/snack bar was not exactly my idea of a fun time. But this was the vacation from Hell. At least I had a friend. So I plunked myself down on one of the station's resin chairs while Venable checked out the drink fountain. He decided to try a tall cup of Raspberry Iced Tea.
Five cups later (punctuated by 4 pit stops in the station bathrooms-the only thing that runs through ones system faster than a beer is an iced tea) the Triple A truck finally arrived. It was a tilt-bed sort rather than a hook and hammock and it already had a van on it. What's more, a nine-member Hispanic family was riding inside the van (without air conditioning in the 112 degree sun). How in creation could it take an 18 foot Edsel plus this 16 foot van, all on on 28 foot bed? It couldn't pull my Edsel behind the bed. It is too low of a car. The angle needed to do that would be way too steep. Nope. They would have to take the van off, put my car up on the bed, and drag the van behind. So as they informed all nine members of the family that they had to get out of their car, I and Venable went back for two more cups of Raspberry iced tea. This was going to take a while. I could tell.
I could also tell one more thing from the tow truck. It had an address on the side: Needles CA. Though the promotional material Triple A had given me had said my Triple A Plus was good for free towing in any direction, up to 100 miles, and there was a reasonable sized city within 100 miles west of us, the tow truck driver said he was going east. Only east. And the only city east of us was the same Needles we had come from. We had no choice.
But I figured, after a few hours in Needles, they'd change the silly pulley, we'd take off again and be home by midnight instead of dinnertime. This wasn't a major overhauling kind of job. It was a socket wrench deal. And Ford Motor Company couldn't have made that many different size and weight pulleys to go on the front of their engines. My car was powered by a very ordinary and common 292. Any auto parts store could have the part needed, I imagined, and it was a Wednesday. They would be open. No sweat.
But first my car had to get on the tow truck, which turned out to another devilish event. Though they look somewhat similar, 1960 Edsels are not reskinned 1960 Ford Galaxies or Fairlanes. They have a different suspension and a longer wheelbase. That ridiculously long wheelbase and short space between the road and the body, causes them to bottom out when going up many driveways other cars have no problem negotiating. I've deliberately gone in many one way "out" driveways because of that, and replaced many mangled exhaust lines over the years. But I haven't ridden on many tilt-bed tow trucks and the tow truck driver hadn't towed many 1960 Edsels. Consequently, when it came time to pull the car onto the bed I heard this grating screech. I turned around to see my bumper, which had gotten a few extra twists in it on its vacation in Needles, dragging across the cement driveway. (At the transmission shop, they had attempted to pick the car up by that bumper-which is only decorative, and discovered you can't pick up a 1960 car by a bumper the way you can a 1990 car. The car had let its displeasure be known by falling on the guy who had tried that ill-advised stunt. That fall had started the new twist which the tow truck driver added to. You get free bodywork, whether you want it or not, on a vacation to Hell). "Stop," I screamed at him. "That's my bumper." The guy didn't pause for an instant. He either couldn't hear me over the bumper squeal or pretended real well. By the time I ran over to him, my bumper was more than mildly rippled. But the car was already on the tiltbed. The damage was done.
I went back into the air-conditioned snack bar. There was no use being mad and hot when I could be mad and air-conditioned. It took another 25 minutes before the van was hooked up, the mother, father, grandmother, aunt, and children in the 9 member Hispanic family were rounded up and loaded back into their un-air-conditioned van for the two hour ride back to Needles. Then I and Venable headed off in the luxury of our not-Taurus with Georgia plates for the address they had given us in Needles. We got there before the tow truck. In fact it was a whole lot before the tow truck. We waited. And waited. And waited. That truck, carrying my car, never came to the place the driver had sent us. But it kept radioing in its location to the office so we knew it was somewhere. What it turned out to be doing is visiting every reputable repair shop in the fine town of Needles-and getting turned away by every one. When they finally called the office on the radio, to tell us where to go, the instructions seemed strangely familiar. Specifically they told us to head west on Route 66 and turn right at Hui's Restauranunt.
Somehow I wasn't surprised when I turned right at Hui's and saw the tow truck in the yard of the shop we'd pulled out of that very morning. Six hours later, we were back exactly where we started: at the cash-only shop that doubled as a homeless shelter.
Thankfully the yard at that service center is unpaved, so when the fellow unloaded my Edsel, all it did to the now mangled bumper, was drag it through a little extra dust. Since it had been collecting that very same dust for weeks while it had been parked there, you couldn't even tell the new dust from the old. But I could tell I was back in Hell again. So, once the tow truck left, I opened the hood and pointed to my problem.
"That's not a fan belt pulley," the mechanic explained to me. "that's your harmonic balance wheel."
I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at the not-a-fan-belt-pulley. "That's a WHAT?" I asked. It looked like a pulley to me. I had never heard of a harmonic balance wheel. I'd heard of the harmonic convergence. But I was not into that kind of new age mumbo bullshit. And if my car thought it was, it had another thing coming. There would be no new age anything inside my engine. This was a a thirty-eight year old car. Everything was old age, not new age under its hood. "What caused it to break?" I further asked.
He shrugged. I secretly suspected it had been damaged back when the shop tried to pick up the car by the bumpers and dropped it, but since I couldn't prove that, I didn't mention it. I went on to the more important question: "How long will it take to fix?"
"Once we find the part, about an hour," the guy answered. "Finding a harmonic balance wheel for your car could take one day or a couple weeks."
I'd at least learned something in the first days of my summer vacation from Hell. Don't wait around for your car to be fixed in Needles. So once we signed the papers with my home address and phone number, we were off in the not-Taurus, for the Burbank airport, where Venable had left his car the night before. Then on to home in Agoura Hills, where the Edsel's side of the garage looked forlornly empty. I got there a little after midnight. Venable pulled up a few minutes later. We left the not-Taurus sitting in my driveway. We were tired. It was late. We had until 9 AM to return it. We could deal with that in the morning, I figured. That turned out to be my next mistake.
We didn't get up until 7 AM the next morning, which was fine. That gave us two hours to get the rental car back to the company which owned it. There was an agency of that chain on Thousand Oaks Blvd., in Thousand Oaks-about a twelve minute trip from my home. That agency wasn't a 24 hour a day business. It opened at 8 AM. Even so, an hour to drive three miles seemed eminently possible. So when they opened, we were sitting in their driveway, waiting for them. I parked the car, walked into the office, and tried to give them the keys. The guy behind the counter turned on the lights, then his coffeemaker, and finally turned to me. He puzzled over my papers, looked up something in his computer, them informed me. "That car needs to be returned at LAX. If you want to return it here, there will be a two hundred dollar return fee." Two hundred dollars! I gulped. (I could keep the car for a week at that price). Worse yet, the late charge was $45 and hour. They gave customers a thirty minute grace on the return. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to get that car from Ventura County to Los Angeles International taking the 101 Freeway to the 405 south (including up the Mulholland crawl-hill) and then find the correct location for rental car return at a place I'd never been before: all in the height of Thursday morning rush hour traffic. Nobody'd told me that. When I'd said I'd return the car in Los Angeles, I didn't say the Los Angeles airport. I would never have agreed. I meant Los Angeles county. I had heard her say LAX once in passing, while she was at the computer, but I had figured that was information about where one of their agency outlets was located, not an iron-clad commitment to go there.
I figured wrong. You couldn't return the car anyplace but where it had been typed into the computer. You couldn't change that computer information once you pulled out of the lot. Every minute I spent trying to find out details was one minute less I had to get there. Without as much as a clue where their rental car returns-office was located in the LAX vicinity, I took off toward the freeway, with a half-bewildered Venable on my tail. "We've got to return this at the Los Angeles Airport" I yelled across the parking lot to him. He followed me as best he could.
One thing I knew, I couldn't take the 405 Freeway because it is a parking lot, in that direction, at that time of day. I also knew that if I went less than fifty-five miles an hour at any part of the journey, I wasn't going to make it. So I took residential streets through the mountains. They were twisty and hilly two-lane passageways, full of stop signs, but not full of cops. If you think a 38-year old Edsel can do well on a desert freeway, just wait until you've tried a brand new Mercury Sable. That car had get up and go. I lost Venable somewhere in Encino, but I didn't care. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to get that car to the airport. He had no deadline. Only I did. Mario Andretti never took a curve faster. The vacation from Hell had turned me into the driver from Hell.
I made it to the parking lot time clock that records your official return, with 90 seconds to spare on the half hour grace.
From there it was turn in the keys and find Venable, who was relaxedly parked on the side street, reading a newspaper. When I opened his car door to get in, he had only one question: "How did you know how to find this place?"
I was stumped. I hadn't any more idea than he had. All I'd done was drive to the airport and follow the signs that said "rental car return". I'd done it all on dumb adrenaline-no brain at all. "I dunno," I answered. I didn't drive another inch that day after he drove us home.
Weeks passed. Then, one Saturday morning, I got the call. The Edsel was ready. I could pick it up anytime. I couldn't pick it up right then, but they would hang onto it a week or so longer. I wasn't sure when I would be coming, but I would be returning to Hell.
Though Venable was willing to have another Wednesday emergency holiday, I decided he wasn't the fellow I wanted with me. He's my very best friend on the whole planet, but he is not a car-person. I was getting that car home this time, even if I had to pull it on a string.
A friend of mine named Bruce was perfect. He was a professional mechanic during the era of the Edsel. Remembered 292 engines well. Turned out he was even in Needles during my misery-(getting gas on a trip to Arizona) two offramps east of me. I had a shop manual and a flashlight in the trunk of that monster. He had a lugwrench and he knew how to use it. Whatever happened, we were ready.
The drive to Needles was almost enjoyable. There's some kind of energy plant on the way. With mirrors and prisms in the unrelenting sunlight, someone has designed a solar art show from a central tower of that factory that looks like Martian rayguns at play. When you don't know it is there, and don't know what it is, the sight of the laser-like beams emanating from this tower, into the world, can twist your science fiction heart into a pretzel. It's that strange and eerie of a sight.
We redeemed the car, one more time. Checked that it still had oil, water, transmission fluid, and that whatever wheel they'd put on was doing whatever it was supposed to. Everything looked okay.
Then we filled up with gas and pulled onto the freeway. That's when the Andretti came out of the Andrea again.
Needles is situated at the end of a long (and deceptively steep) grade. You can coast into town, but getting out takes throttle power. The Edsel's got plenty of it, and having cut my racing wings through the side streets of Encino, I was ready to roll. Forget 65. Forget 75. Eighty-five was for sissies only. I was going for broke: literally. If this car was going to have a problem, I wanted it right there, still in Needles. I didn't want to be towed to anywhere after two hours on the road. I pushed that car like it had never been pushed before. The car loved it. The eighteen wheelers we passed couldn't believe it. Whoever said Edsels were losers never drove one out of Needles after a summer vacation in Hell.
The ride back to Los Angeles wasn't without problems. But they weren't caused by my Edsel. They were caused by a pair of trucks. Just before sundown, I pulled off the freeway to get gas. That had been pre-arranged at the rest stop fifteen minutes before. But trucks blocked Bruce's ability to follow me, even though he could see that I was gone. He pulled off and waited for me to come to him. I stayed still and waited for him to come to me. Neither of us budged. With the sun going down, and no sign of the Bruceman, I set out all alone to complete the last half of the journey.
For the first time in the whole vacation I felt scared. I hadn't really done anything alone all trip. I'd had the company of the caravan, then I was on a bus, then two planes full of people. That they were strangers was irrelevant. They were there. At the Edsel convention I was surrounded by people. People took me to my parents. My father dropped me at the airport. Venable joined me in Las Vegas. I was never alone before. But now I was. Driving through the desert after sundown, in a car that had previously tried and succeeded at getting as much attention as a spoiled child, did not fill me with confidence. It wasn't what I planned. I had no back-up contingency any more. If the Edsel broke down this time, I would be vulnerable in a way I had never been during any other part of the vacation. But what could I do? I had no way to contact anyone. So I just kept driving. On to San Bernardino, and San Dimas, and whatever other San was on my way. Straight into Los Angeles. I figured that after we separated, Bruce had gone to his house. I was right. He had pulled up 90 seconds before me. I phoned Venable from Bruce's house. Told him that I had made it to Los Angeles. If I had any problems, he'd be the first to hear from me. Then after a pause in Bruce's living room, I and the Edsel completed the last leg of the journey. Six weeks later, I AND the car were home.