Monday, July 28, 2008

My Dumb Vacation

Click here if you missed Part One | Click here to go ahead to Part Three

Part Two: The glory of the open road...with no rest stops...

Rental car agents are retarded. Why would I need insurance? I have insurance, not to mention a license, two working eyes and a swank set of wheels just waiting for me.

"I just don't think it's a good idea to drive a convertible cross country," she was telling me for like the fiftieth time. "They're not fuel efficient, and there will be lots of wind resistance."

"What there won't be any of will be babe resistance," I said nonchalantly. "Can you just picture me behind the wheel of that Mazaratti? I'll have to beat them off with a stick."

Unfortunately, the Mazz was taken, so I was stuck with a Ford monstrosity. No matter. It's late July, there's a Michigan Shakespeare festival starting in fourteen hours, and the open road is beckoning me. As the Bard himself might paraphrase, The weight of this sad time I must obey/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
What I feel: "I am going to tear this road apart!"
What I ought to say: "Screw the festival. How about a hotel and ten hours' uninterrupted sleep? In a, what do you call it, a bed?"
Heresy. Sheer heresy. I've been going to the Michigan Shakespeare festival for nigh on four years now, and each time I go, I remain undissapointed. Oh sure, those high-ended cake eaters in the Big City can have their Shakespeare in the Park, their bi-yearly trips to England's Globe Theater, their BBC subscriptions, blah blah blah. Give me Jackson Community College any day. They know how to do it: Merchant of Venice in a 1920s motif, Henry V circa World War I style, Hamlet as a bitchy college dropout. I'm addicted, I tell ya.

Of course, no small part is feeling like a bigshot whenever my aunt or uncle leans over, nudges me, and whispers, "Who's that guy again?" If I didn't know better, I'd swear they were playing the innocent in an effort to puff my deflated ego. Ha. Not likely.

So there's no way I'm about to miss this cultural phenomenon just because a mere 800 miles or so separates me from my loved ones and the Bard. Which is why I'm renting a car to drive the distance in a marathon ten or twelve hours' time.

The car rental place is dubious about whether or not I can make it. I've got three days' worth of Manhattan living weighing me down; I hate driving; I can't remember which states border Michigan; and my hand is visibly shaking as I sign the rental contract. "We've got road maps available, you know," the agent tries again. "We can even tack them onto the cost of the rental. You won't be out anything extra."

"Look, honey, this isn't rocket science. As long as I drive towards the setting sun, I know I'm going west, right? Nuts to thou."

Outside, the sun is glaring into my eyes, and a parkway looms before me. Oh crap, I thought to myself, which way is it to the turnpike? No, can't show weakness in front of these schmoes. Got to hit the road with confidence.

Getting out of New York City, as it turns out, is a lot less complicated if you avoid the city altogether. For me, this meant a leisurely detour northwards on 678, past Yonkers, losing the freeway in Connecticut (Highway 15), reconnecting with 80 way up north, and recontinuing westwards a mere three hours after I left the airport, all the while passing deformed banjo players grinning at me and pointing towards river tour trip signs. What, me worry?

I managed to keep a more or less consistent log of the journey in hour form. Of course, they tell you writing anything while zipping along at upwards of 80 mph is dangerous, but I think the record speaks for itself in proving this a bunch of crap:

Hour One Feeling good. The sun is out. The grass is green. Never traveled cross-country solo before. Only on those Florida road trips with Tso and Todd and all them. Hmm. Wonder what those guys are up to? I should call them. Anyway, I'm off to see America!

See? Isn't it grand?

Hour Two: Hmm. Sun being out not such a great thing when it's right in your eyes. No matter. I'll play the radio to distract myself.

Hour Two point Five: God, radio sucks out here. Didn't Debbie Gibson retire her career a decade ago?

Hour Three: What the hell are they talking about, no Starbucks drive-ups? This is the East coast, right? It's not? I'm in rural country? Then why is Debbie motherfucking Gibson still playing so much?

Hour Four: God, my back is killing me. Must keep driving, though. Got to escape...Debbie Gibson.

Hour Four point five: Am I even on the right road? Bah, what am I, a sissy? Men blazed trails out here without any maps! Of course, a lot of them wound up eating each other to survive...

Hour Five: I should probably stop over and eat something. Bah, no time. Running out of time before the first show starts. Maybe I can rehydrate with the windshield wiper fluid. Got to stay sharp. Revel in the glory that is the open road:

Hmm. Seems sort of monotonous. Hope I'm not lost.

Hour Six: That bastard Tso. "Oh, you should go out East." "Oh, you should go to New York." Now I'm driving this ridiculous trip. It's his fault. Everything is his fault. I'm going to kick his ass when I see him next. And what does he mean, the news is left-leaning? I'll lean on your left, asshole.

Hour Six point five: If I had to, I could eat Tso to survive out here. Better not tell him that.

Hours Seven: God, the Midwest is so boring. Can't believe there isn't a landmark or a theme park or something.

Hour Seven point two: Wait a minute...what's that in the distance?

Hallelujiah! Something to actually say I saw while seeing America!

Hour Seven point two two: Almost there...

Erm. That can't be right. Maybe I need sleep.

Brief interlude for sleep in Youngstown, Ohio, where my mother and uncle were raised. I haven't been to the town for about fifteen years. The last time I was out here, I was a whiny teenager with a face full of acne. Now I am approaching my mid-thirties with a back built like a child's tower of blocks. While I should be sleeping, I examine my hairline to see if the drive is making it recede. As near as I can tell, it is.

Hour Eight: Going on three hours' sleep. Fueled by coffee. Drink it in lieu of food. Go go go.

Hour Eight point two: Damn. Need to pee.

Hour Eight point three: Gah. Too much coffee.

Hour Nine: Oh Christ, how much longer? And how much longer until I can get some more coffee? This sucks.

Hour Nine point one:

I hate this place.

Hour Ten: "Hello, Tso? When I eat you? I'm starting with your eyeballs, fignuts." Click. Showed him.

Hour Ten point five: Standing in aunt and uncle's driveway. Seeing double. Need to pee. Need to eat. Need to sleep. Five years taken off my life. But I made it. Victory is mine.

Aunt: "Nice to see you. Now shake a leg. Your uncle's car isn't going to wash itself."
Uncle: "You drove all that way for a lousy play? What a rollicking social life you must have."

Okay. All right. Vengeance will be mine.

Next: Part Three! The exciting world of Jackson Shakespeare! A beach bar with no beach! A Broadway musical in a high school auditorium! And I suck out Tso's eyeballs and eat them with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My dumb vacation

Click here to read Part Two | Click here to read Part Three

Part One: Brooklyn- and Manhattan- and Staten Island-bound

I leaned over to the cabbie in front of me. We were flying down 49th Street, and while the streets were hustling and crowded, it looked suspiciously bereft of hookers. And bookstores with cheap and alternative titles readily available. But mostly hookers.

"Where can you get a little action here?" I asked innocently. "I mean, I'm just wondering. Say a guy wanted, I don't know, a light spanking in cooking oil while a Rachel Ray impersonator cooked broccoli pasta in front of him. How would that happen?"

The cabbie turned a little to glare at me. "Linguini broccoli pasta?" he barked.

"Well, duh. Is there any other kind?"

"You want Otasman's place," he said, turning his attention back to driving.

Well, I should have seen that coming. I paid him, got out, and immediately jumped into another cab. "Where to, pal?" came floating from the front seat. Ah, New York cabbies. Such a wonderful versatility with the spoken language.

"I'm looking for a place where the missile can go into the silo, if you know what I mean," I said cheerily.


"You know, I'm looking to plant my flag. Preferably in virgin soil. Right?"


"Um, I want a taco to put some beef into? A kaiser roll for my big salami? Taking the beef bus to tuna town? Any of this ringing a bell?"

"Are you Otas's friend, by any chance?"


Three cabs later, still no luck. This time I got a Hindu with a heavy accent. Cultural references to tacos, burgers, hot dogs and hoagies were lost on him, so I immediately demonstrated, with a handy Barbi doll I keep for just this sort of situation, what exactly I was after.

He asked me a short question, with a rising lilt to the voice. It sounded like a request for confirmation, so I nodded in the affirmative. He nodded back, produced a Ken doll from an inside pocket, and pulled over. "For this one, I just made varsity," he explained, "and we're both going away to college in the fall."

Well, I thought, any port in a storm...


Ah, New York. Like an adulterous relationship with a tempestuous mistress, I return to her city streets guiltily and furtively, remembering work to be done back home, a house that needs work, a girlfriend that requires listening-to, bills that need paying. But all too late to think of duty. I walk these streets confidently, assertively. I am no tourist. I might as well be a native, I thought to myself. I wear the same Hawaiian shirt, the same cutoffs, the same I Heart NY t-shirt and the same city map and tour guide. I fucking blend, people. Now, where does Winona Ryder shop, again?

McKee Vocational High School, where the legendary Frank McCourt taught get the ideaToday, though, there's no time for asinine rubbernecking. I'm on my way to Staten Island, to check out McKee Vocational High School, where the legendary Frank McCourt taught for eight years almost half a decade ago. After reading his memoirs, I know the route like my own name: subway to the Staten Island ferry, ferry over to the island, up the hill three or four blocks to the school. I want to retrace these steps, see the city and its duties the way he saw it. I want to see the window he stared out of while wishing he could write a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, become a household name, and then write subsequent memoirs extolling and condemning the perils and pitfalls of public school teaching, which is why, I'm told, he now has a glass of wine every first day of school in the morning, instead of schlepping off to preach to the masses about the values of literature, dodging spitballs all the while.

Not that I'm looking for a similar roadmap to success, mind you.

Staten Island is a virtual cultural mecca, completely overlooked by those snotty Manhattanites. Neighborhood bars with $2 PBR, corner groceries that sell beer By! The! Bottle! A lovely industrial section, with railroad tracks going every which way, and a refreshing breeze bringing in industrial smog and city carbon dioxide from across the bay.

I tromped around a bit through the neighborhood, snapped pictures of the school (anyone who gives a damn can see the rest of them on Facebook, I suppose) and walked into the loading dock. A maintenance worker glared at me as I explained to him (with just a pinch of falsehood) that I was a former student who wanted to know if I could get a look in the building itself. "I'm not from out of town," I assured him. "I hate it when out-of-towners come here to gape at where McCourt taught, don't you? Not like us natives. Those damn tourists are a pain in the ass, yo."

My feet touched the floor a couple of times as I was escorted out, but not before I saw a hallway. Mammoth. Absolutely mammoth. The damn school is built like a prison. Classrooms with what looked like iron doors. Gates keeping them from escaping. I made a mental note to talk to my principal about a new building plan.

Back to the city then. Matt and I ate and drank our way from mid-town to Brooklyn, and the next couple of days were more or less a haze. To be fair, he was more or less productive in the mornings: a leather suit, glitter on his chest, and he was off to the "office" to "earn a buck." I asked no questions. Safer that way. But the evenings, those were spent seeing the occasional friend (Wiggo, one memorable evening, where I learned of his evolving social/romantic/professional life), Mary another. The last night there, I of course forget my jacket at a bar. My flight leaves in an hour, and I'm suddenly frantic.

"I don't think you have time to get it and make the flight," Matt commented, glancing at his watch for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes. He'd been making such concerned remarks over the past few days: "You're sure you're leaving Thursday, right?" and "If you want, I'll kick in for an earlier flight." Such compassion.

"But it's my lucky jacket," I whined. "It totally works with the ladies."

"What ladies would those be?"

"Waitresses, hostesses, strippers. People who are generally paid to make me happy. But besides that, it's all the jacket. Plus, it's got my Ribfest sticker on it."

A brisk ten-block walk to the South Street Seaport (another cultural mecca, by the way, and it's so not a tourist trap, which is why I go there all the time to drink ten-dollar Amstel Lights), a hurried exchange with the manager, and my jacket is back in my hands. But the flight leaves just ahead of me, so I weather another night in Brooklyn ("There are flights tomorrow morning, right? There are. Well, what about a red-eye? You could go see Nova Scotia!") and then back to LaGuardia, where, it turns out, the nine a.m. is sold out. And the ten. And the eleven. And...oh dear, the standby list is over a hundred, and the ticket agent is handing out lottery tickets for a Fight to the Death for the next available flight. I don't kid myself that I'd make it past the first contestant: a forty-two-year-old mother of three headed for her brother's wedding.

I call Matt. Get his machine: "I've moved. Don't call here any more. And I want my glitter back."

I call Wiggo: "Oh yeah, 'evolving' social life, is that what it is? Go screw yourself."

I call Mary: "What? Who is this? Listen pal, I think if I'd spent a wonderful evening with you, I'd remember."

Out of immediate options. No other flights, no buses, trains, no car pools. And the Michigan Shakespeare festival starts in a matter of hours. Time for plan B:

"Hello, Avis Rent-a-car? Do you have anything available for today?...You do?...Great, that's great. I'll be right there. Oh, by the way, have you ever heard the expression, 'burping the worm in the mole hole'? ...You have?...Great, I'll need directions and a couple of alligator clips. The safe word is going to be 'Puck.'"

Next: Part Two! Cross-country driving! The majesty of the eastern states! A triumphant return to my roots! And I pull over to use the restroom and eat a candy bar!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Good-bye Dell. Hello debt.

Forty-five minutes of my life on the phone with Dell Customer Care today. Why: My computer won't turn on. Why is this: I don't know.

I first bought this machine back in 2004. It was a rough transition, but eventually, just like my dishwasher and garbage disposal, it quickly became something without which I could not live. Oh sure, the virus control software is a pain, makes the system slow to a snail's crawl, and the fan is always running, and if you actually have it on your lap, which isn't, I don't think, unreasonable, given the fact that it's a laptop, you suffer third-degree burns after ten lousy minutes. But it was mine. Not bought on credit, after all, but on love. And a school financing program.

Still, it's not much use to me if it sits there like a damn log. I probably should have known better, but I dialed the customer service number, prepared for any catastrophe they could throw my way.

The guy on the phone's first question: "If the computer isn't working, how did you get the e-mail for our tech support?"

I answered that there was another laptop in the house. "Then why not just use that one?"

(I know. I didn't believe my ears either.)

Anyway, the tech guy had me do everything but make the machine a damn cup of coffee. I took out the hard drive. The memory card. The optical drive. The vas deferens. Piles of electronic guts were surrounding me, and still, nothing.

I unscrewed. I rescrewed. I lost screws and then I found them. I swore like a sailor. I breathed heavily while on hold, just to register my displeasure when the guy got back on (showed him). I pushed buttons and prayed to heathen gods, all to naught. The Inspiron 5160, which I've hailed as a life-changing purpose all these years, sat smugly, like a seventh-hour senior waiting his date with the prom queen.

The verdict: One new motherboard, priced at about $560.

"What does a motherboard even do?" I asked skeptically. "Do I absolutely need one to run this thing?

I didn't pay much attention to the answer. Something about it being the metaphoric transmission to the computer's so-called engine or something. But hell, I once kept my fanbelt running with a pair of nylons. Don't tell me that in the 21st century, we can't juryrig a soup can and a rubber band to do the job for us.

Apparently not. My order, while not placed, is sitting on account, ready for my authorization.

So I'm sitting here in my kitchen, feeling dehydrated and strung out, like I'd crawled through the attic to fix the wiring in 100-degree heat instead of simply sitting in my chair, bent over a recalcitrant computer. And I'm figuring, $560 for a damn motherboard that might buy me another year, but will ultimately crap out as well? It might be time to go the Mac route.

I hate even saying that. It's like a surrender of sorts: the revolution I led against Apple Computers back in the 1990s is finally over. Buying my Ipod was bad enough; buying a Mac notebook is the final step. I've no idea what my aversion is to the Apple: you can still use Windows, you can work on just about any network you want, it's a total revolution, it's got enough memory and power to run a nuclear sattelite, blah blah blah. Maybe I've got an unfair ethos built in my head concerning Mac users--they're yuppified, latte-swillers, electronic namby-pambys who know nothing about the joys of awaiting your downloads over a slow, clunky internet connection. That's not good enough for them. They want their music now. They're not content to wait another ten minutes for illegal downloads. God forbid they have to lift a ten-pound machine hot enough to fry an egg on, oh no. The kids might get hurt.

It's probably time to ditch such thinking. Even if it's true, it doesn't do me any good. I love lattes.

So, in addition to home renovations and whatever else has to be done at the new place, I apparently have to scrape up enough dough to buy a new computer. And then join the revolution. Weeping.