Flat

Flat tire in formal attire

Long ago, back when a good story seemed the most valuable thing, I used to tell people that my earliest memory was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t true. I was old enough, 22 months, to have remembered that tragic day, and I’m certain that my parents were absolutely shattered by the event, so perhaps with hypnosis or something, I could dredge it from the frontal lobes. But no, my first real and entirely recollected memory is of a flat tire. Two flat tires actually.

I remember sitting on the fender of my mother’s maroon car in the heat of the sun, on the side of a road in a pine forest. I was probably two and a half then. A family in a white station wagon stopped to pick us up, and I sat in the way back surrounded by older children. The inside of the car was red. We went to an Esso station and that’s all I remember. I know it was an Esso station because I remember the sign was four characters inside a white oval with a blue frame. The details have been filled in for me over time.  My mother hit a pothole, and got two flat tires. The gentleman of the family that picked us up took my father and one fixed tire back to the car and helped him put on the fixed tire and the spare and then Dad came back to the gas station and picked us up. It was some place in Georgia. The car was my mother’s Corvair, famously unsafe at any speed, but my mother still describes it as one of the best cars she ever had.

There have been uncounted flat tires since then, though luckily only a few have been dramatic. In 1986, I was driving through Binghampton, NY on I-86 and I had a blow-out on my Volkswagen rabbit. I was in the center lane and managed to nurse the car to the far edge of the road along the median. I had to cross three lanes of traffic with my dog to get off the highway. I have to wonder if there was some vibe about me in those days that was off-putting or if it’s just Binghamton, but what sticks with me is how people were not at all kind. I had AAA, so I walked about a mile to a Holiday Inn to call them. The desk clerk yelled at me because my sweet dog was sitting quietly at my feet while I made the call from a payphone in a hallway. I was told it would be at least an hour until the wrecker could get there.

I tried calling some old family friends who lived in Vestal. I’d known them since I was five. I thought maybe they’d come help me, but they just said they were glad to hear from me and hoped I’d have a better trip after this mishap. So I walked the mile back and crossed the three lanes of interstate traffic and sat in the car and prayed no one would hit me. A New York State Trooper stopped and gave me a ration of grief, but when he learned that a tow-truck was coming, he set out some flares and went on his way.

The tow-truck driver wouldn’t let me bring the dog in the cab, and complained about the car not being “off the road” and with a great deal of huffing and puffing delivered us to the Sears automotive department, where I bought a tire for $40 and set off again in the dark. I’ve had no interest in returning there. For any reason.

Another flat tire that sticks with me is the one that my uncle Tim changed on the Swingley Route in the wilds of the Beartooth mountains in Montana. The road is washboard, it took us awhile to realize that the tire was flat. Tim and his wife and two boys were visiting us; I was 8 months pregnant. My husband was working, but I was leading them on a merry adventure to the Roadkill Bar and Cafe, fifty miles away in McLeod. Eventually it became apparent  that something more than usual was wrong with our 1988 Volkswagen Quantum. (The best thing about that car was the license plate: LEAP. The worst things were too numerous to list.)

Then there was today’s.

Crossing East Dayton on Third Street is about my least-favorite route across the city. The street is narrow, but heavily traveled. The houses are alternatively boarded up, burned out, or inhabited by hollow-eyed white folks who long ago gave up on ambition. There’s a Rite Aid, and a Shell station where you have to go inside to pay because they have too many drive-offs. There’s a store-front “nightclub” promising dancers, a used appliance place, takeout Chinese,  a couple of corner groceries, one of those was the last place a teenaged girl was seen alive before her body was found in a trash can a block away.

We’d taken the Mercedes. It’s our nicest car, one that someone paid 75 grand for in 2003. We don’t usually drive it around town, “preserving” it in the garage most of the time.  A guy in a maroon pick up truck pulled out in front of us onto Third, “merging” right into the traffic as seems the convention these days– never mind right of way, or stopping before making a turn. My dear husband is very sensitive about the bad habits of other drivers, which means every time he gets behind the wheel of a car, he is enormously aggravated by those less considerate around him.

A few blocks up, the maroon pick up decided to turn left onto Findlay. We only know that he was deciding to turn left because he came to a stop in the middle of an intersection with a green light. Muttering, Elmer went to drive around him– but the guy swung wide to make the left and startled, Elmer goosed the car to get out of the way, running over the curb on the opposite corner. That something was badly wrong was immediately apparent.

“Well, shit.” I said. “Better pull in at this gas station.”

“No,” he said “That’s a private enterprise and we’re not buying gas there.”

“Well, you can’t stay on this street, pull in there.” And he did. And yes, the right front tire was flat to the ground, the sidewall having been punctured by the cast iron storm sewer cover that juts out a tiny bit from the curb.

Oh, the drama. I got out the card and called AAA. I helped unload a few things out of the trunk. I called the insurance company in case there was more damage than just the tire, perhaps some suspension issue. Yes, we would be covered, let them know if we needed to make a claim.

I stopped myself from screaming “How many times do I have to tell you to watch out for the curbs?” I listened patiently to him rant about the driver in the pick-up, and his despair at the impending expense. And somehow it was of course, my fault that we’d taken this car instead of his usual driver, a 14-year-old Saab with 230,000 miles.

The AAA service guy arrived– someone directly from AAA– and none too friendly. I need to call them about that on Monday. Why on earth would you take a job helping people if you can’t at least be courteous? The “emergency spare” doughnut was impressive– as tall as a regular tire. The Mercedes-Benz owner’s manual has 10 pages on how to change the tire and cautions not to run the car on more than one “emergency spare” at a time. Apparently the AMG version of our car has a “collapsible spare” and auxiliary air-pump. I read the description of it out loud and we laughed as we pictured someone unfolding the “collapsible spare” out of a cardboard box. (Disappointingly, it’s not that different from the regular doughnut.)

When we got home, he was still too upset to call the tire places, so I did.  One tire place not only had the matching tire at the best price, but the guy on the phone called me “hon,” which made me want to cry. He has to order the tire out of Charleston, but it will be here Tuesday. We joked that it was good the tire wasn’t coming out of Boston, with its impending blizzard. He said he’d call me when it was in, and they’d take care of me.

The rest is just money after all.

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Joy of Thrift

Last week, my 18-year-old son was eager to show me this video. He’s often eager to show me a video, it’s usually something to do with Machinima or Minecraft and if I can, I try to weasle out of it. But this time he said something that stopped me: “Mom, this ought to be your theme song.”  Well, who could resist that? Who doesn’t wonder what theme song their teenager would ascribe to them?

And? Well, he was on to something. I do love thrift shops. I’ve been a maven of thrift shops for  . . . . well, a long time. I started to write that I hardly wear clothes from thrift shops anymore, but that’s not true. At least half of my wardrobe is still second hand.  In Montana, you could get better clothes in the thrift shops than you could in the retail establishments downtown, and you didn’t have to pay “resort town” prices for them.

So, yes, it could be my theme song. But I’ve been sick for weeks and sad even longer and I really haven’t felt like dragging myself out to the Happy Heap, our nickname for the Goodwill outlet where goods are piled unsorted on tables and sold by the pound. But this video, even in my fog, made me grin. Especially at 2:57, where the magic is strong.

The song is the work of Macklemore, a 29-year-old Seattle-area rapper named Ben Haggerty. Working in conjunction with producer Ryan Lewis, Macklemore has developed a considerable online fan base without the assistance of any major label support. Rolling Stone called them the “Indie rags to riches story.” (How appropriate that a song about thrift shops would catapult them there.) The key difference between Macklemore’s other successes (like the exquisite “Same Love“) and the phenomenon of “Thrift Shop” is Wanz, a 51-year-old software tester.

Wanz (real name: Michael Wansley) was something of the go-to guy for “hooks” in the Seattle music scene. He charged $25 an hour to sing the hook in what has been described as a “sturdy, soulful voice,” $40 if he had to write the hook too. He got a call late one summer evening. He went to the studio at 1 a.m., wrote and recorded the chorus to this song and was back home in bed within the hour. I sure hope they paid him more than forty bucks.

My son was scandalized when I said it was Wanz that made the song, but truly, it’s that hook that makes it work, and at 2:57 when Wanz appears in his Creamsicle three-piece-suit, underscored by a beautiful bass line, that’s where the song really launches. And 51 years old. That’s so cool.

When I first saw this, last week, it had 73 million views since the end of August. Even for YouTube that’s a lot. Especially for an indy single. In the 6 days since, it’s up to 85 million.

So today, I had twenty dollars in my pocket.

We have a Goodwill outlet here, much like the Seattle Goodwill outlet in the video– same blue bin tables and rows of upholstered chairs.  Rag and bone men make it their second home, ransacking the tables for something of value. Metal objects that can be sold for scrap are highly prized, as are certain arcane electronics. When the sheet-covered newly-laden group of tables is wheeled out, they line up obediently to be first into the new stash. When the sheets are removed, all hell breaks loose.  They are joined in the elbow-to-elbow frenzy by junk shop dealers, working stiffs, the impoverished, and the curious.

It is a controlled chaos. People grab and reach and rifle through. It used to be that they would toss stuff, but too many things got smashed that way and management put a stop to it. Still, it is not without peril; broken glass, rusty knives, tubs of rancid Avon products, the jagged edge of a shattered resin unicorn lurk. But the place makes me feel oddly serene. My family hates to go there, so I go alone. Though I am a familiar figure, the regulars don’t “recognize” me, so I don’t have to make chit chat. I just methodically work from one bin to the next, scanning for treasure. It may be bedlam around me, but I am alone with my thoughts.

It is my happy place.

Though I’ve been away awhile, the cashier still waves at me when I come in. Because I have been so prickly lately, it takes me awhile to get into the groove. The wares seem junkier, the aisles more crowded, the children more fractious. Why doesn’t she just take that exhausted toddler home? A guy moves my cart to go past it and I very nearly say something, but what would be the point? I just shrug and bit by bit, begin to relax. I find an ancient dime-store Santa Claus doll with a gauze face. An adorable black Labrador puppy toy from FAO Schwarz, with its original tags. Underneath a pile of looseleaf in a sorted-through bin is a pine needle souvenir tray from Marietta, Ohio. I smile.

Three hours later, I emerge with an etched glass from the Chicago Kennel Club, a Vellux queen-sized blanket, a Ralph Lauren bath towel, a brand new ULINE mailing tube, 4 new super-absorbent shamwow-type towels, a Nature Creation hot-and-cold shoulder wrap, Martha Stewart’s Handbook of Hors d’Oeuvres ($35 list price), a Thundershirt, two baskets, an action figure of Merida from Brave, a brown silk lampshade, an enamel ice bucket (or maybe it’s a kitchen compost bin, it’s brand new), a felt Jack o’Lantern, The Contented Poacher (a cookbook for game) a book of John Baeder’s wonderful paintings of Diners, a copy of the newest translation of Gilgamesh (National Book Award winner) a signed copy of Bill O’Reilly’s A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity and a vintage 8 by 10 photo of a black labrador named Mindy. And the pine needle tray, the Santa doll, and the puppy. For $19.30.

Do I skip to the car? Maybe a little.

I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes, I look incredible …

Object Lesson

Or: Why Did Beyonce Want to Dress Like That?

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One of the first things that a friend of mine posted about Beyonce’s half-time extravaganza was that it was “not as skanky as Madonna’s.”  I admit, I didn’t see Madonna’s contribution to Super Bowl history, but it’s a little hard to see how it could be more “skanky” unless she actually took off her clothes and surely even I would have heard about that. Maybe it was the make-up. Beyonce was sporting that sort of “fresh-faced”-Clearasil-wholesome look from the neck up, totally at odds with what was going on below her chin.

After the Super Bowl was over, nearly 10,000 people– most of them women– commented on the Facebook page “Binders Full of Women” (named in honor of that comment by you-know-who) about Beyonce’s performance and there was a definite divide. Love her or hate her, why was she dressed like that?  Or maybe “undressed like that” is more accurate. Some women defended the singer’s choice of wardrobe. Others were horrified. I’ll say this for the costume– wearing that no one would notice if she was lip-syncing or not. The founder of “Binders Full of Women” finally came out and stamped her foot saying that “Slut Shaming” was not permitted there.

Oh, okay.

Well, for starters, I don’t like referring to women as sluts, or skanks or whores or hoes or whathaveyou based on what they’re wearing. (Yes, I did famously say to my 13-year-old stepdaughter who came home wearing a skirt that didn’t quite cover her pudenda, high heels and bright red lipstick that “If you dress like a whore, people will treat you like a whore.”  But that was after the gentle heartfelt talk on the same subject the day before and she was a child and it is our job to instruct our children so they don’t grow up to dress like Beyonce.) Seriously, though– grown-up, successful, strong women can wear anything they damn well please.

So why would she choose that warm leatherette and lace ensemble that someone described as a “wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen”?  Is her singing not enough? Is she not comfortable enough in her own beautiful skin to dress a little  less, er -provocatively?  Honey, I’ve been in strip clubs, and that’s how those women dress, at least at the beginning of their sets. Is this a condemnation of American men that they can’t be entertained by anything short of a stripper? 

Funny thing is that so much sex is used to sell commodities in America that I was not particularly scandalized by the half-time show. The camera work and pyrotechnics reminded me of nothing so much as a Pepsi commercial, which can’t be coincidental. I probably wouldn’t have even thought much about her mixed message. She was not presenting herself as a powerful and strong and accomplished woman, but as a sex object. I’m not sure that would have even registered if not for Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys.Unknown

Before the Super Bowl, Jennifer Hudson joined a chorus of children from Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing “America the Beautiful,” an experience she described as “emotional” and “overwhelming.” Even the players lined up on the sidelines wept. But at no time did we think we might get a glimpse of something naughty. Jennifer looked like someone you could take home for Sunday lunch after church. Not dowdy by any stretch, but appropriate for what she was asked to do.

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ersAlicia Keys was on hand to perform the National Anthem. There has no suggestion that any lip-syncing was involved, as Alicia Keys delivered a quiet and elongated rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  Hell, that brought football players to tears too. Seated at her piano, she would have been at home in any concert hall any place in the world. Those two women clearly didn’t feel that they needed to dress “sexy” (as Bey puts it) in order to entertain the millions tuned in for the Big Game. I guess their performances were validation enough.

Perhaps Beyonce herself said it best in a Tumblr message after the game: “What a proud day for African-American women. Kelly, Michelle, Alicia, J. Hud, you are all beautiful, talented and showed so much class!” [emphasis added]

So I get it that the suggestive clothing is part of Beyonce’s persona, it’s her schtick, but what message does that send to those little girls everywhere who idolize her?  That a good voice, a pretty face and a modicum of talent are not enough– that you have to sell “it” every minute of the day if you want to be worth $350 million dollars? There’s been some righteous criticism that Beyonce does not do enough to send a message of empowerment to her fans. Now that she’s a mother with a daughter, maybe she ought to take a long hard look at exactly what it is that she’s selling.

Sounding the Depth

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Is this the bottom? It feels like the bottom. Not the bottom of the stairs, with a clear path to get up and climb forward. Not the bottom of the ocean, its many fathoms, full of light and life and music. No, this is more like the bottom of deep well.

I do not feel sorry for myself.

How could I feel sorry for myself? I see around me people who are suffering more than I am. Not just “people” like amorphous children starving in far-off nations, no I mean real people. They’re dealing with terrible losses, or life-threatening illness, real crises. Not this kind of selfish malaise that keeps me from getting out of bed.

Or going to bed.

I started out nine months ago, chipper and whatnot, ready to get myself together. It went well for awhile. I stumbled, often, but I got back up again. I came to terms with living in a much reduced circumstance. I clipped coupons. I stopped going out for lunch. I figured out thirty-five ways to cook potatoes.

And then I stopped writing. And started arm-wrestling demons. I know what depression is. I did my five-years-with-a-therapist stint in college. One of the great reliefs of leaving the artistic community in New England is that I discovered that the rest of the world does not assume you have a therapist.

I could probably use a therapist now, but I can’t afford it. Hell, I can’t afford to go to lunch.

I’ve been sick since my birthday, January 16. Most of the time since then I’ve spent in bed. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store with my husband chiming in my ear about how we can’t afford anything. I bought it anyway, spending a hundred dollars on groceries that are supposed to last us until March 1st. They won’t. When we got home I was so exhausted I had to lie down. Later, I found a slip of paper on the counter where he had worked out  how much milk we would need, how much dog food, how much gasoline. He doesn’t understand how much that inspires my despair.

There is so little  joy in my life and that makes me cranky. Even the things I used to love ring hollow. When I’m cranky I alienate people and then I feel lonely and unloved and more cranky.

We’ve been waiting for our old dog to die. For months we’ve thought he was on death’s door. But not yet. And just as well, because we can’t afford that either. It may be a race to the pearly gates between my old coonhound and my grandmother. Don’t be offended, she’s eager for her heavenly reward and I don’t begrudge her that. I’d like to go and see her, but I have to measure the cost of gasoline against all the other financial considerations.

It’s exhausting, this constant weighing of importance.

So I sit, here, at the bottom of the well and look up and think it’s really not worth bothering, trying to climb out. I feel like just when my hands reach the warm grass, someone will step on them.