Of Cars and Trucks

I like cars. I use the term generically, to include all the forms of four-wheeled, powered, personal transportation. I have owned nearly a score. None were especially expensive, powerful, or exotic. Each one was fun to drive. Every last one.

My first was a black 1962 Plymouth Valiant with a red vinyl interior, a slant-six engine, and push button transmission controls on the dash. The year was 1968. I was in college. It was a rather pedestrian (excuse the pun) entree into the world of car ownership, but then, I was a rather pedestrian college kid. I spent weekends exploring “gray roads,” those faint gray lines on maps that indicate “unpaved.” Among my college friends, the car had something of a low-rider reputation, as its semi-elliptic leaf springs had sagged into straight lines and the torsion bars on the front end were similarly exhausted.

In short order after college, I drove a VW Microbus and a Fiat 124 Sport Spider. Sitting over the front wheels of the Microbus and cranking that nearly horizontal steering wheel through the esses of a mountain road is an experience that stays with you. I can still feel the sway, still hear the pitch of that air-cooled four-banger in the back rise and fall as I accelerate out of one curve, then decelerate into the next.

And the Spider! Ah, the Spider! Mine was the color of lemon mousse. A curvy Italian beauty, with tan upholstery and (unusual for the day) a convertible top you could raise and lower without leaving the driver’s seat. I remember one fine summer day rounding a curve in Wilkes County, NC, and seeing a clear, sharp line in the road ahead, separating dry pavement from the thunderstorm I was about to drive into. I braked to a stop on the shoulder. The wet/dry line held its ground. I reached behind me, lifted the top and clamped it into place, cranked up the windows, and drove into the storm, snug and dry.

The Spider was also a great snow car. Snowfall is a big deal in Charlotte, NC, and leaving work with a surprise five inches on the ground makes for an interesting commute. I had to help push several cars out of my parking lot before getting my own turn. The little Fiat needed no help there nor on the hill near my house. I just had to wait for the other cars to slide off the road and give me driving room. Later that night, I double-dated in that car. The other couple were afraid to risk it in their big Buick.

During my graduate school years, I got bitten with the back-to-the-land bug. Attempting to grow a significant portion of our food led, as you might expect, to a pickup truck. My first was an early 60s beater with sprung hood hinges. As I drove, the rear of the hood would slowly rise until it crouched eight inches above the cowl and I could watch the engine in its labors. At the end of the trip, I pushed the hood back into place, ready for its next rising. To my chagrin, that truck also came equipped with a cracked block. It was a short-lived partnership. But that old truck set me on a different path, in which there are just two states of being: Either I have a truck, or I am between trucks.

It is possible to function between trucks. It helps if the gardening bug is in remission. I have hauled long boards on top of Nancy’s station wagon, and her birthday rock (a 300 pound boulder) inside. And, in all honesty, those “between trucks” vehicles each had their charms. The full size Dodge van was great for that two-week camping trip in the American Southwest. The mini-van was just what we needed for the cross country trip that followed Lewis and Clark west and the Oregon Trail coming back east. The Volvo turbo that almost got me ticketed for enjoying the switchbacks down to Leatherwood Ford in the Big South Fork was a blast. For a time, Jay and I shared a Nissan 240SX and, later, a Miata—happy reminders of my beloved Fiat Spider.

Nevertheless, I am no longer “between.” My current ride is a 14-year-old Ranger. It’s my fifth truck and our low-mileage vehicle—140,000 and counting. I rarely even sweep out the mulch and gravel anymore; the next load will not be long in coming.

Encounters with Progress

Part 1. Modern Banking

My credit union has opened a new facility for the retail activity at its main location. In place of a long string of, mostly empty, teller stations, we now have just a few places for face-to-face banking, and some “interactive teller machines” (ITM), on which a real but remote teller is present by video link. I have used these a few times now, instead of waiting in the queue for a traditional teller, and the experience has been OK. Recently, I tried the new drive-through. Not OK.

When I drive up, I am faced, not with the familiar pneumatic tube, but an ITM. “TOUCH HERE” says the screen. I touch, a friendly face appears and asks for my account number, and a key pad pops onto the screen. I am thrown. For two-and-a-half decades, I have known my number. I use it frequently when banking online. However, for that same two and a half decades, when I physically “go to the bank,” my debit card has been the key to my account. I have it in my hand, am ready to insert it into the slot. Asked for my account number out of the familiar context, I go blank.

It’s no big deal. The card slot is there and I access my account the old way. But that start sets the tone for the entire transaction. I am here to deposit some checks. I need to endorse them. I am in Nancy’s car. Not a pen in sight.

Pneumatic tubes may be old technology. But they contain pens. ITMs do not. The friendly face on the screen asks me to look around to find the “ambassador,” who can provide me with a pen. It seems that new technology requires some poor soul to stand out in the weather and deliver pens to those who, like me, have arrived in a pen-less car. But it’s a cold, wet day, and the poor ambassador has apparently retreated inside to get warm. In compensation, (s)he has left behind piles of pens. Out of reach.

The design of this new drive-through facility features massive waist-high blocks of concrete that form canyons leading up to the ITMs. Are these masses an architectural statement? A security measure to keep me from hurtling my car sideways into the adjoining lane? Behind me, on one of the blocks, is a pile of blue credit union pens. Trapped in the canyon, I can’t open my door. Fortunately, I am the only car in my lane, so I back up to the pile, launch myself half out of the car window, and—barely—reach a pen. Then I move forward again, grin sheepishly at the friendly face on the screen, and look around for a surface on which to write.

Pneumatic tubes may be old technology, but they have a flat side on which to write. If it were a warm day, perhaps the ambassador would be nearby and would have a clipboard for me. If I were in my truck, I would have a tissue box with flat surfaces. But my wife’s wagon has no convenient space for a tissue box. She uses soft-sided containers. There is no flat, hard surface in that car.

I shrug my shoulders at the friendly face on the screen, and back down the canyon again. This time, I have to back all the way out, so I can open my door, exit, and use the rough concrete surface of a canyon block as a writing surface. I scrawl “for deposit only” on each check, get back into the car, and move forward to the ITM. The friendly face is gone. Maybe it was her break time. The screen invites me to “TOUCH HERE.” I decline. I drive out of the canyon, park, walk inside. The line for face-to-face encounters is ten deep. I take a deep breath, walk up to the indoors ITM, and “TOUCH HERE.” I am relieved to get an entirely different friendly face. Acting as if nothing has gone wrong with my day, I deposit my checks.

Part 2. But Wait! There’s More!

That is just the beginning of a technologically “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” I am trying to buy tickets online for the play, “A Lesson Before Dying.” The website does not tell me which dates are sold out. Instead, it presents the entire slate of dates. I pick one, travel several steps down that road, learn there are no tickets left, back up, and repeat. I finally find empty seats. But I am not allowed to simply pay and exit. I must first “register.” Email address, password, credit card data, billing address, mailing address (I am not asking anything to be mailed, and there is no “same as billing address” option). Finally I complete the last blank. My finger is descending on the SEND button—and the session times out. Time is counted, it seems, not from the last activity, but from the first.

Now I am in limbo. (The one just outside the gates of hell.) I am not registered—I timed out. I cannot register—”That email address is in use!” Nancy comes to my rescue. Knowing she is in a race, she registers herself, beats the clock, and we finally have our tickets.

Later that day we go to the post office. We need a stamp for a birthday card. It is after hours. I let Nancy out near the door, then find a parking spot. And wait. And wait. Thinking she may have been mugged, I go inside. Reading the look on her face, I understand she has had her own adventures with progress. Stamp machines, it seems, are old technology. The new technology is kiosks that make the mailing of a simple birthday card as complex as mailing a package of Christmas gifts. A fun feature is the partial labels printed by the kiosks. City, state, and ZIP are pre-printed, but street address must be filled in by hand. When the label is pressed onto the letter/card/package, the ink smears. The work table is littered with other customers’ smeared labels.

I don’t think it’s just us. My grocery store, the new one that sells seemingly everything but tires and toilet seats, cannot keep its own brand of yogurt in stock. Cannot keep peanuts in the make-your-own-peanut-butter machine.

One more example. When the new credit union branch was built, the banks of deposit boxes were moved locked and intact. My box is and always has been in the cheap seats, the nosebleed section, the very top row. Even the tallest employees have to use the step stool. The first time I entered the new vault after the move, the bank of lockboxes looked familiar, but the ceiling seemed oppressively low and the lighting, well, absent. I could barely read the numbers on the top row. After the paperwork and the step stool positioning, the attendant unlocked my box and tugged on the inner container. Bang! It hit the light fixture. She tried again. Bang! “I can’t believe that!” she laughed. Finally, by forcing down hard, she was able to scrape it under the fixture.

I think I need to chill for a while. Sing along with Fred Eaglesmith. Treat myself to a snack. But wait! I’m out of yogurt. And peanut butter.

Somewhat Stunned

Twenty-six years ago today, we went on our first date. It was, as I have said many times, the toughest job interview I ever endured. From “How do you spend money?” to “What did you learn from your divorce?”, I was grilled, poked, and prodded.

A week earlier, my friend, Peggy, had asked, “Are you ready to meet someone?” Good question. After two years of separation/divorce, I was still seeing the therapist I’d gone to in hopes of saving the last marriage. Still working on some things about myself I recognized a need to change. Lonely, still hurting, but also hopeful. I said, “Yes.” Armed with a name and phone number, I made the call.

I don’t think my adolescent date requests were any scarier than this one. Perhaps they never get any less scary—I’m not planning to run the experiment. Anyhow, I expected a short phone call; she either turns me down, or we set a date and time. Some of you are thinking, “He must have played hooky the day they handed out boy-girl skills.” The rest of you also missed that day; you feel my pain.

That first phone call lasted an hour and a half. It was, in light of what was to come, a gentle inquisition. Pleasant, even. We talked about books that had had an impact on us.  She told me of her three years in Taiwan and her current passions. I mentioned that I had two children; she replied, “You are fortunate.”

Actually, the date itself, despite the job interview overtones, was not an unpleasant experience. I think I had recently crossed some sort of threshold in my own interior work, and was ready. If our first date had occurred even a few weeks earlier, I suspect it would have been a disaster. As it happened, in one of those gifts of synchronicity and grace, I was ready to be vulnerable and sensed that Nancy was safe to be vulnerable to.

We talked until three am. Seven weeks later, we were engaged; seven months later, married. I remain grateful—and somewhat stunned.