The Two Americas

 

The Two Americas
            I hate this sense of polarization in the United States, this propaganda-driven idea that it’s US Versus THEM.  I thought I might take a look at the groups, the US and the THEM and see if I can’t analyze the difference.
            First of all, let me state that I am firmly one of the US.  I wouldn’t let a THEM in my house nor allow my sister to marry or divorce one of THEM.
            There are many lifestyles in this country and I think the US/THEM divide flows along lifestyle differences.
            There are two kinds of people in this country.  Hostess Twinkie People and Progresso Soup People.
            I heard a snippet of a Sarah Palin speech yesterday and she is a Hostess Twinkie person.  Her speech began with the question, “Dontcha wanna get back to the good ol’ America that we grew up with?”
            This is the archetypal Hostess Twinkie question. It’s the soft white piece of cake on the outside.  It has no meaning, no nutritive value and is uttered to appeal to the most childish type of person.  Then Ms Palin said, “Doncha want to return to the America that respected values, like honest hard work?  Values like believing in God and the family?” This is the payoff, the creamy center, made from shortening, corn syrup, fructose, sodium glycol and unspecified binding agents.  It does not require teeth to be eaten.  It does not require a mind to give pleasure to childish people.  It just needs to be sweet and gooey.
            The Progresso Soup people are looking for an honest lunch in a can.  The packaging of Progresso Soup conveys a return to old-country quality and nutrition.  If it was called “Progress Soup” it would sound cold and industrialized.  The addition of the “O” transforms it to grandma’s home made blend of split peas, onions, celery, noodles and chunks of chicken.  It became so successful that it forced Campbells to make better soups.  You know, the soups that NFL players’ moms force them to eat.
            I’m not saying that a Progresso Person won’t eat a Twinky or that a Twinky person won’t eat Progresso Soup.
            The point I’m making is that there are a lot of people in this country with empty minds.  They have no curiosity, and are too lazy to figure things out for themselves.  They are content to be fed the intellectual equivalent of cake and candy.  Due to their lazy childishness, these people are easy to manipulate.  That’s what scares me.  Twinkie people are being lied to.  They are being told that Progresso Soup people are not real Americans, that they’re trying to undermine the constitution and destroy the values imbued in this country by the Founding Fathers.
            They believe these lies because they want to, because it’s easier to believe a comforting lie than to search out a truth that might not go koochy koochy koo.
            Twinkie People are slowly being turned into mobs who will chase Progresso Soup people down the street, force them to hide in attics, and, sooner or later, put them on trains going nowhere.
            We will look a little odd when they make us wear Progresso Soup labels on our jackets.  However, we will be squirting little doses of Ecstasy into the creamy centers of their Twinkies, so I expect the results to be worth the struggle.

Car Disasters of 2016 or Bad Fortune Cookies

breakdown

            I was driving sixty miles an hour on Southbound 101 when the car abruptly died.  It was my nightmare fantasy come true.  My heretofore trusty ’98 Jeep just  stopped.  The radio went off, all the gauges slid to zero and I realized that I was coasting to a halt in a busy freeway lane.  I tried to restart the car.  I had no lights, no nothing.  I couldn’t even put on the emergency blinkers. 

            I was terrified.  Vehicles were hurtling towards me at sixty and seventy miles per hour and they had no clue that I was dead in the right lane.  All it would take would be one dreamy driver to plow into me and I would be both cause and outcome of a multi-car  possibly fatal accident.  Should I get out and run for it?  Should I wait here?  I didn’t know.  It seemed more honorable to stay with the car, to go down with the ship.

            A Highway Patrol car materialized behind me, its lights flashing.  I was pleased, for the first time in my life, to see Law Enforcement flashing its lights at me. The officer walked briskly to my front window.  He gestured to me to roll down the window. 

            Problem is, I can’t roll down the window.  The Jeep’s driver’s side window doesn’t work.  I had to pop open the door to hear the man’s voice.  Embarassing?  And maybe illegal?

            “Put it in Neutral, sir.  I’m going to push you to the shoulder.”

            Thank god thank god the gear shift works.  It works kind of funny, like there’s only one gear.  The lever slides up and down without stopping.  Oh god I hope this Jeep is not stuck in gear.  The CHP officer squares off behind me and bumps my fender with his big front pusher bar.  The car moves!  Oh! 

            There’s another CHP car about two hundred yards upstream from us, slowing traffic by weaving across the freeway.  I get to the shoulder and the officer appears again.  He shouts at the closed widow.  He thinks I’m a moron. “Have you got Triple A, sir?”

            “I do.  I do. I do.” I feel like I’m getting married.  “I do I do”, I stutter, my nerves shattered, my forehead bathed in perspiration. 

            “Call ’em right now.  What’s wrong with your vehicle, sir?”

            “I don’t know, it’s been running fine and then, suddenly, whammo! Dead.  D-
A-I-D…dead!”

            “If this vehicle is still here in two hours it will be impounded.  Do NOT exit the vehicle unless supervised by your tow driver.  Stay in your vehicle!  You’re lucky I don’t write you a ticket for reckless driving.  I’m feeling benevolent today. Today’s my lecture day.  If this was tomorrow I’d write you up for twenty different violations.”  I’m listening to this through the open crack of my driver’s side door and the opened rear window, and all the other open windows except the one next to me that doesn’t open any more.  I’m praying the policeman doesn’t notice the passenger side front mirror, because it’s taped on with duct tape and is not glass but a piece of reflective plastic whose images are distorted  beyond recognition at any speed.

            I call Triple A and wait for the tow truck.  I get texts every few minutes relaying the progress of my rescuer.  “Recovery Vehicle has departed current location at.etc. etc……ETA 45 min.”  When the tow truck arrives it conveys me to Bowens Automotive Repair, a garage that I picked at random off the internet.  The mechanic does his tests and I absorb the diagnosis: My alternator is shot.  The car needs a new alternator.  Price tag: Five Hundred Dollars.

            I have no choice.  I call my partner to pick me up and drive me home in the other car.

            The Other Car.  The ’96 White Chevy Blazer.  It was once a luxury car.  Leather seats.  Key fob operated remote lock/unlock.  We haven’t driven it in four years because it doesn’t start.  I would presume its got a dead battery but I swapped another battery into the car and it still didn’t start.  So, maybe a blown starter motor?  Bad solenoid, frayed ground wire, failure to make contact somewhere within the fiendish complexities of its electrical jungle.

            The Jeep has always been our go-to car.  I haven’t had the money to repair the Blazer. But now I must buy a new battery.  If there’s something else wrong with the Blazer  I’m wasting my money but I follow this handy rule:  If the car doesn’t start, and the battery doesn’t charge, replace the battery.  Maybe the swapped battery was dead, too. 

            The moment of battery replacement is fraught with tension.  Will it, won’t it…start?  I connect the new battery, turn the key in the ignition and….hallelujah!  It starts right away.  Oh, what a relief.

            I drive the Blazer to work the next day.  We’ve been using the Blazer as a storage bin.  Its rear is filled with linens, dishes, books, tools, all kinds of stuff  loaded up to the line of sight in the rear view mirror.  If we put any more stuff in there, I won’t be able to see what’s behind me.

            I drive to work.  I work.  I prepare to drive home.

            The driver’s side tire is flat.

            Shit!  Where’s the spare?  Is it underneath all that storage?

            No.  It’s under the chassis, riding beneath the rear wheels.  The problem is that the tools for jacking and removing lug nuts is underneath the dishes, the linens, the books.

            And there’s a trick to getting the spare to come free, a trick that I don’t know. I’ve been using a sledge hammer to whack at the wing nut that constrains the spare.  I whack it and the nut turns but it’s not un-threading.  It’s not coming free.

            I begin to unload the stored goods in the cargo compartment.  Maybe there’s a special tool, something to help me understand the spare tire conundrum.

            A motorist rolls up beside me in the parking lot.  He’s driving a Blazer.

            “Are you stumped by the spare tire riddle?” he asks.

            “Totally stumped.” I admit, raising my shoulders.  The back of my t-shirt and pants are black with asphalt and tar.  I don’t know this, yet.  I can’t see it.

            The Good Samaritan emerges, opens his rear hatch and pulls a variety of jack stuff from a compartment.

            “If you take this to a pro tire shop they won’t know what to do either.  It’s the great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.”  It turns out there’s a hidden slot next to the license plate.  When my new friend inserts a blade-style tool into the magic slot it turns a cog and the spare tire DESCENDS on a cable until it hits the ground and I slip it off the wing nut.  There is no thread.  There is just this clever but now-obscure arrangement.

            Flat tire off; spare tire on.  Drive to the tire place.  Spend $120 to replace the spare.  Okay, the car runs.  As I drive, I see the one thing THAT I MOST DO NOT WANT TO SEE.   The dreaded SERVICE ENGINE SOON light comes on.

            I hate those lights!  Hate em!  They utterly destroy my peace of mind.  They are the manifestation of worry on the Material Plane.  As we all know, The Material Plane is dominated by concerns for automotive hygiene.  If you don’t got transpo,  you don’t got shit.

            I try driving the Jeep.  I’m too scared by the friggin’ SERVICE ENGINE SOON light on the Blazer.

            The Jeep takes me to work the following day.  I detour through Novato and prepare to drive to Petaluma.  I’m going “the back way” because north-bound 101 is a parking lot.  It’s always a parking lot from 3 to 7 P.M. five days a week.  What is this insane life we live?  Why do we spend four hours a day sitting in automobiles?

I’m heading for South Novato Boulevard when a giant cloud of steam erupts from under the hood.  GIANT CLOUD OF STEAM!  NOT GOOD.  NOT GOOD.


blowin steam

            I pull into the parking lot of the last shopping center before I embark on twenty miles of rural winding roads.  I buy a jug of coolant and I fill the Jeep’s reservoir with the gooey green stuff.  I wait twenty minutes and I attempt the drive home.  The Jeep runs, somewhat jerkily, and I spend the next forty minutes of back-road driving in a state of profound alarm. 

            I make it.  I’m home. 

            I know a little bit about cars.  That kind of volcanic eruption of steam can indicate a water pump has gone bad, or the thermostat has failed, or the radiator is toast.  Or all of the above.

            My neighbor, Mike, knows about cars.  “I’ll change your thermostat,” he says cheerfully.  Mike is attending AA meetings and has just got his thirty day chip.  That’s not an issue for me.  It just adds to the air of tension: Mike struggling to stay away from drink.  His wife has quit smoking and is on Day 27.  My neighbors are deeper in poverty than we are.  No wonder Mike eagerly volunteers to change my thermostat.  Mike is all over the place helping people. 

            I purchase a thermostat.  Mike replaces the old one in about ninety minutes.  He doesn’t want to charge me.  I give him fifty dollars.  The new thermostat works, the Jeep stays cool.

            I didn’t want to mention this before but it just happens that the Blazer’s registration is due in a week and I know, for a fact, that SERVICE ENGINE SOON means that it will not pass the smog check.

            Fuck.

            Nonetheless, I feel safer driving the Blazer and I take it to work the next day.

As I’m coming home on North Petaluma Boulevard I hear a sound like a very large and joltingly loud motorcycle cruising up on my driver’s side.  Wow!  That’s loud!  I look to my left and I see no motorcycle.  There’s no traffic at all.  But the Blazer is crunching and flubbling.  It sounds like a propellor blade being demolished by a potato masher.  The Blazer is behaving as if it has the hiccups.  No question: another tire is flat.

            I get over on the shoulder to inspect the damage.  Holy Shit!  The tire is literally shredded, it’s nothing but four inch strips of rubber hanging from a punctured black matrix of nameless stuff.

            Call Triple A.  Second time in three days.  An hour later the big yellow truck pulls up.   A toothless rail-thin old guy gets out, grinning happily, and tells me that my tires are sun-damaged.  They’ve been sitting for too long and the heat has soaked the oils out of the rubber. They’re all about to blow at any second. I need to instruct the tow truck man how to get the tricky spare out from under the Blazer.  Once the tire is changed I drive straight to the tire place and get four more new tires.  That is, after I’ve cued the guys at American Tire Co. about the Great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.

            There are days when nothing goes right.  When to touch a machine is to wreck it.  Or when one makes an error due to a lapse of attention that causes a ten foot fall off someone’s deck into a bed of blackberry bushes.  I’m having one of those days.  I put on the coffee.  It’s a stove-top espresso maker.  I wait for the boil, wait and wait.  I smell something burning.  Uh oh!  I take a pot holder and lift the coffee maker.  Oh man!  Oh man oh man! I forgot to put water in the bottom part of the Vigano stove top coffee maker.  Now the rubber gasket has melted and scorched the threads and the coffee maker is a casualty of Morning Mind Mush.  In spite of the damage, my partner is greatly reassured.  My error is comforting to her.  She thinks she’s “losing it”.  Now she knows she’s not the only one who’s “losing it”.

            I must locate a smog shop, a Star Certified Service Center, one of those in cahoots with the smog-fighting money-sucking bureaucracy of the DMV.  I pay for the smog test.  The Blazer fails.  How much, I ask, will it cost to fix it so that it passes the rigorous standards of our state’s air-quality guardians?

            The Blazer needs a tune-up, a forward oxygen sensor, a rearward oxygen sensor and a catalytic converter.”That would be about nine hundred and fifty dollars,” answers the mechanic, whose name, Kelvin, is stitched onto his dark blue jump suit.  Kelvin’s wife/receptionist is named Tran.  They’re Vietnamese.  

            How many times have I said “shit” or “fuck” in the last three days?

            “Kelvin,” I ask, “is there some kind of discount for the poor and the elderly?”  I have been poor my whole life.  The ‘elderly’ part occurred while I wasn’t watching, about three years ago, when my left hip began to feel as if a strong man was applying pressure to it with a vice grip.

            There is, in fact, a program for the poor and the elderly to pay $500 towards smog repair.  I get the papers downloaded and send in the application.  A week later the grant arrives.  Five hundred of that nine hundred fifty dollars will be paid for.  Hell yeah!

            The smog repair takes two days.  I wait eagerly for Kelvin’s call.  At last the phone rings.  “You passed your smog test,” says Kelvin.  I’m so happy!  I’m thrilled.

I had needed a victory, any victory, a small victory, whatever, I’ll take it.

            “But there is a problem, I’m afraid,” says Kelvin, and my heart takes up residence at the ends of my toes.  I can feel my pulse down there, bumpity bump, pulsing up through my toenails.

            “A…uh…problem?”  Fuck!  Shit!

            “I think your water pump is about gone.”

            “You think, you THINK.  Is it gone or isn’t it?”

            “I don’t know.  There was a pool of coolant under your car when I came in this morning.”

            How much does he want to repair the water pump?  Well, you see, one should also replace the thermostat when one replaces the water pump.

            HOW MUCH?

            Four hundred seventy eight dollars.

            Stop everything!  HOLD THE PRESSES!

            I’m not stupid.  I check online and a water pump plus a thermostat costs about sixty bucks.  My neighbor, my pal my buddy Mike will do any automotive task for fifty dollars, gladly.  The work boosts his self esteem and it keeps him out of his RV and away from his jonesing wife.

            The Material World is a challenging place.  Our current model, this 21st century science fiction hip-hop deodorant-peddling appearance-worshiping stage set is peculiarly complex, is like a cross-word puzzle without a solution.  No one wins in the Material World.  All endings are bad endings.  If I’m lucky I will die quickly and without indignity.  If I’m lucky.  Meanwhile, as I wait for the denouement of my life, I must endure and meet the challenges thrust into my face by the invisible spirits of Destiny.

            Is the cup half full, partially full, partially empty, or totally empty?  The Highway Patrol Cop did not write me up.  The guy in the Blazer showed up as if dropped from Heaven.  I got a five hundred dollar grant from the DMV. The battery in the Blazer started the car.  The Jeep still runs.

            The cup is the cup.  Whatever’s in it is what I’ve got.  I may as well accept that fact.  It’s all those things, partially full, partially empty.  Life is blessed and sublime and life can be unspeakably vile.

            While I’m at it, I should check my credit rating.  I might want to purchase a recent model used car.

Begging Is the Hardest Job In The World

A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot. I was approached by a well dressed woman. “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance. “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”

My hand went up to stop the rest of her pitch. She was begging. I could see that every word was costing her great effort.

“Sure, no problem,” I responded. “I have a couple bucks worth of change. I’ve been through hard times myself.”

She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears. She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection. She looked like a soccer mom with two kids. This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar.

Some traffic- light panhandlers have a dog. Some sit in wheelchairs. They’ve always been a fixture at certain busy intersections. They hold cardboard signs written in Magic Marker that say variations of the same message: “Anything will help.” “Please. Will work for food.” I hold no animus towards them. To feel contempt would be….contemptible. They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations.

I could tell that the well dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to panhandling. The look on her face was shattering. She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas. She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that. I saw her move on to the next person and the next. They recoiled, they refused. She kept on, walking softly up to people. “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am”.

I could see the immense effort it cost ; her body was wrapped around itself as if she was very cold. I know the feeling. I’ve begged and panhandled. I sank to the bottom tier of society. The work of begging is very difficult.

Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food. It was five-ish, getting dark. A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks. Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
“Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand. “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”

As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.

“How many hours a day do you do this?”

“All day. I’ve been here since eight this morning. My feet are killing me. I’m done in an hour. Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”

“So..what are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”

She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet. The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face. She didn’t look like an addict. I’m not an expert on what an addict looks like, but, having been one, I can feel that particular hunger, I know the signs. She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in circumstances beyond her control. Maybe she’s divorced. Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support. She’s three months behind on the rent. She was laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm. Unemployment benefits are running out. Can’t find a job anywhere. She’s desperate and she wants her kids to continue having the things they’ve always had. Karate lessons. A music teacher. Little by little she’s losing the ability to provide, and pride leads her to some difficult choices.

So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.

“About one person in ten is nice.” she replied. “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here. ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person. Shame on you!’ Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty. I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings. They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself. Excuse my language. And you know what? I stand up for myself. I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”

Her eyes shifted. A woman was loading groceries into a car just down the row. She needed to get back to work.

“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I have to make every minute count.”

“Go on,” I said, “Go back to work.”

She had to push herself away from the car. She was bone tired. She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective. Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being. She was half an inch from breaking into tears but she pulled herself together.

With each passing week I expect to see more of these parking lot beggars.

Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.