What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Part One

I don’t ever want to be thought of as, “That kindly old Coot.”  Rather, I want people thinking, “WTF is he up to now.”  With that thought in mind, I took the sorcerer’s apprentice son on a weekend trip to Detroit, to practice my craft.

The son works a midnight shift, and had been up since 7 PM Thursday.  I barely suppressed the adrenalin enough to get to sleep at my usual 4 AM, and was back up to open the door as he got home, shortly after 7 Friday morning.  While he had a bit of midnight snack, a shower, and a change of clothes, I packed bags and boxes, and put them in the car.

Finally ready to leave, we kissed the wife/mother goodbye, and were on the road by nine.  After a quick stop to fill the gas tank, we were soon rolling down Highway 401 towards the border.  Since we planned to stay in Warren, MI, north of Detroit, Miss GPS suggested that I cross over at Sarnia/Port Huron.  I insisted on taking the “usual route” through Windsor.  Recalculating, and you’re still an asshole.

The drive to the border took almost exactly three hours.  We took the tunnel since we were headed north, and there was almost no-one crossing.  I pulled into the shortest line, one car.  It got released just as the dash clock clicked 12:00 – and shift-change/lunch relief happened.

A different guy walked out, and I sat there for eleven long minutes, with the engine running and my foot on the brake, while these two shot the shit.  It was only the thought of cavity searches that kept me from rolling down the window and suggesting they continue their bromance on their own time.

I took down 14 quarters, 6 dimes, 4 nickels, and 12 pennies, for a total of $4.42.  At par for a while, the Canadian dollar has slipped below 90 cents/US, meaning I gained 50 cents theoretical buying power.  I was determined to get rid of as much change as I could, quickly.  A lump in my pocket bigger than a golf ball, considering the neighborhood we were in, I shoulda poured it in the toe of a sock, and kept it handy as a cosh.

We checked into the motel, and Kentucky-born, little black Connie was just so bright and helpful.  We put our stuff in a room where the maid had set the thermostat to 82 F, and walked two doors up the street to have lunch at a place called Crash Landing.  Lots of pictures and model of planes, but I think the place got its name from the barflies falling off the stools.  One o’clock on a weekday afternoon, if you guys don’t have jobs to go to, how can you afford to sit there and drink??

I added 8 quarters to a twenty, to pay for lunch, and put six more, and four dimes and two nickels beside the tab for a tip.  Suddenly the pocket is much less full.  Across the street is an Iranian convenience store, serving the trailer park behind it.  Nice doublewide units on concrete pads – but, a trailer park!  All weekend I kept listening for the tornado.

Later in the afternoon, the son went to the office for some tea, and asked Stephanie, the 3/11 clerk, where to get decent pizza for supper.  She suggested Loui’s, just above Nine-Mile Road.  He thought she said Eight-Mile, and we missed it.  I turned left on Eight-Mile, to turn around in a McDonalds to head back up….and there, right across the street, was Papa Pizza.

The white rapper Marshall Mathers, AKA Eminem, gets his street cred by saying he was raised in a tough Negro area, and titled one of his albums Eight Mile.  I’m in his back yard!  This is not White Breadville – we felt conspicuously Caucasian, but, we’re here.  Papa Pizza is the end anchor to a small strip plaza.  They have three reserved parking spaces.  I take one, and we go in to order.

The service area is ¾ inch thick Plexiglas, from counter to ceiling, capable of stopping or deflecting most handgun bullets.  Pizzas are placed on a rotating plexi turntable and turned so that you can remove it from your side.  They must do a landslide delivery business.  The tiny, empty, eat-in area only had 12 spots, but there were 22 guys behind the glass, making pizzas.

Later, we went shopping.  The wife’s niece asked if I would pick her up some supplements from a health-food store.  A check at the GNC website showed a store in the same strip-mall as a Kroger’s we planned to visit.  When we got there, I found that the stores in the Kroger’s strip were numbered by tens, 370, 380, 390 – PetCo is number 400.  The next building starts at 500.  GNC’s site claims their address is 406, strange, very strange.

Little Miss GPS is both helpful and frustrating in this new area.  She shows how to get to a Meijer’s plaza, a couple of miles away, but as we get close, “In 65 meters, turn left on Progressive Drive.”  I’m not from around here!  Where in Hell is Progressive Drive – in the dark??!  Recalculating.  Oh, right, back there!  Now we do the Michigan Shuffle.

At many intersections they won’t let you turn left.  You must go a hundred yards past, pull over to the center and make a U-turn at special lanes.  Some have traffic lights, giving you the right-of-way, eventually.  Most don’t.  You just pray (optional for atheists), force your way into a hole in traffic, and hope you can get over to the curb lane in time to pull in.

If you don’t, you get to play the game again from the other direction.  Tomorrow, when my blood-pressure recedes, the saga continues.  I’ll take you to the knife show.  Remember to wear sensible shoes.

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Unreasonable Expectations

There’s no sharp “point” to this post.  It’s just another gentle Remember When story about my growing up, although it does have a quiet comment at the end about how we sometimes dig our own trench to experience tunnel vision.

My little 1800-resident home town swelled to about 15,000 in July and August, with the influx of tourists.  They came in two basic types, the one- or two-week temporary vacationers, and the more affluent cottage-owners where mom and the kids came up as soon as school was out, and dad visited on weekends.

I don’t remember any townie–vs.-tourist rivalries, and my little circle got along with both batches well.  Perhaps it was because of the lack of size of the upper crust, but even the well-to-do group often associated with the commoners.

I was friends for years with mother and kids of the family who still run a large Kitchener wrecking yard.  I hung around with son and daughter of a couple who owned a well-known car customising/detailing shop in Oshawa.  Both these families were a bit unusual, in that they had hauled a small trailer to town, and permanently placed it in the tourist camp.

Our group was sometimes joined for bowling, or a bush party, by the daughter of the C.E.O. of a large Kitchener firm where, seven years later, the wife got her first job as a receptionist.  The summer I worked at the convenience store, I also had a two-month romance with the daughter of a minor scion of the family whose name graces a fourteen storey office building in downtown Uptown Waterloo, five floors of which constitute the City Hall, and where her uncle sat as Mayor.  Her “summer cottage” was probably worth five times what our year-round home was.

I/we also made many temporary, one-time friendships with kids from the cabin-renting crowd.  These folks paid good money to live in little wooden buildings that chickens would have rejected, just to be near tons of warm white sand and cool blue water.  Unlike the others who were around for two months each summer, these evanescent visitors were only with us for a week, or perhaps two.

And so I met Danny.  A first time visitor, he had not been in town an hour when I ran into him early Saturday afternoon on the main street, looking lost.  Probably to get him out from underfoot while his parents unpacked, he had been told to walk the four blocks to the retail area, to familiarize himself with the stores.  By the end of the day he was part of our pack.

He was thrilled.  You can only hit the beach so much.  He had envisioned two lonely weeks stuck with only his parents, but we included him in everything we did.  We got him rental skates and took him roller-skating.  We took him down to the river harbor to swim, and I taught him to dive off the fishing boats.  Despite the age limit of 18, I got him into the pool-room and taught him several games.  Where he was from, pool-rooms were dark, dirty and dangerous.  We took in a couple of movies.  All in all, the entire group spent more time and energy on him than we ever did with any other tourist.  He was a nice kid.

Sadly, all vacations must come to an end.  Two Saturdays later, he walked uptown while his parents packed, to say thanks, and good-bye.  The leaving was lonely enough but, as he got ready to walk away, I sensed something else, and asked what was bothering him.

He said, “Somebody told me that there was an Indian Reservation just outside town.”  “Yeah, so?”  “Well, in my entire two weeks here, I never saw an Indian.”  I was stunned!  “You’ve played pool with Donny Kewgeesik, and his older brother Ronny.  You roller-skated with Nathan Akiwenzie.  You swam and dived with Frank Shobadeez.  John Petoniquot took you fishing in his boat, and you took his sister Laura to a movie.”

Now it was his turn to be stunned.  “They’re Indians?”  “Of course!  Did you expect the Indians to ride into town on horses, wearing feather headdresses, and war paint, shaking spears?”  The empty expression on his face told me that that was exactly what he had been expecting.  In the entire two weeks, hardly anyone had used last names.  These “ordinary people” he had met didn’t meet his expectations of what Indians looked and acted like.

We said our last goodbyes, and I never saw him again.  I often wondered how much effort it was for him to re-integrate his understanding of what and who Indians are.  It’s occurrences like this that taught me early, not to judge a book by somebody else’s cover.

Rednecks….But In A Good Way

Jeff Foxworthy says that a redneck is someone with a Glorious lack of sophistication.  I don’t want to insult or denigrate anyone, because we’re all on the bell-curve somewhere.  I just want to write about some people who, while happy and helpful, proud and prosperous, live just a little further off the paved road than most of us.  They’re nice folks, but, if it didn’t happen in their back yard, they don’t know about it.

I was a child of my mother’s second marriage.  Dad was released from the Armed Services because he contracted chronic bronchitis, caused by damp ocean air and gunnery fumes.  Mom was seven years older than Dad.  She started collecting government pension before him, and had to wait for him to catch up.  When he finally did reach 65, he had that extra disability pension, and felt that cold, damp winters, spent on the shore of Lake Huron, were not good for either of them.  They agreed that, going to Florida for some/all of the winter was a great idea.

The first year they went down, Dad towed a little thirteen-foot trailer, and they stayed about a month.  Dad had a blind spot in his right eye, because of a ruptured blood-vessel.  He misjudged a big-rig, merging from an up-ramp on I-75.  It wasn’t quite a collision but, when they got to where they were going, there was no doorknob on the trailer.  The second year, Dad had traded up to an eighteen-foot trailer, and they stayed for two months.  By the third winter, Dad towed down a twenty-three footer, and they stayed about three months.  Then they met the Tylers.

The Tylers owned a 30-acre farm. Half of it was citrus, mostly oranges with a few grapefruit trees.  The other half was truck-garden, potatoes, carrots, onions, etc.  They had five fully furnished, fifty-five-foot mobile homes, used to house migrant workers during picking season.  They were more than willing to rent these out over the winter.  The farm was located half-way North to South, and half-way East to West, not close to either coast, but near Baseball World and Epcot for relatives who drove or flew down.  They charged rent at a monthly rate, which places near the ocean wanted for a week.  The stress of hauling a trailer fourteen hundred miles over three days was gone, and the rent was a lot less than campground rates, so they could stay longer.

Bogey, the husband, was born in Kentucky.  He only went to school two days in his life.  The first time, the teacher was sick, and the other time was a holiday.  He never learned to read and write.  If he received a check, he signed it with an X and his wife, Frances, had to witness it.  Frances was from Louisiana, and had a grade-eight education.  When Bogey wasn’t busy running the farm, he did odd-jobs for the locals.  He could do carpentry, plumbing, electrical and concrete work, and, if he couldn’t, he “knew a guy”.  Uneducated does not mean stupid or untrained.  When Frances wasn’t busy keeping house, raising kids or helping run the farm, she had two part-time jobs.  She would get up as early as BrainRants, to drive a bus-full of teenagers to high-school, an hour earlier than most of the rest of the country, because it gets hotter, earlier, in Florida.  Then she put in an 11 to 1 lunch shift, as a waitress at a local restaurant, checked out and drove the kids home again.

Of course, they never read newspapers.  Dad said that they had a TV, but he never saw the flicker through the windows.  Instead, they liked to spend what little free time they had at the end of a busy day with a beer on the back patio, and often invited Mom and Dad to join them.  Since Frances was from Louisiana and New Orleans wasn’t that far away, one night Dad asked if they ever got over to Mardi Gras.  “What’s Mardi Gras??”, only the biggest, rowdiest party in the country.

The next winter, after the parents arrived, Bogey told them that the farm next door had been sold to some Yankee doctor.  Frances jumped in, to tell them, “and they got nine kids.  Niiine!!”  My mother said it sounded like a good Catholic family….”What’s a Catholic??”  Well, if they don’t know what Mardi Gras is, they don’t know what a Catholic is.  They’s good Southern Baptists.

The two under-educated parents wanted to ensure that their kids “got their graduations”.  I wondered if they stored them in the same box as their diplomas.  They had two boys, a year apart, and then, five years later, a daughter, Brenda.  The boys both graduated and, with a little financial help from the parents, each managed to buy a small farm fairly nearby.

Brenda worked her way through high-school and graduated one June.  By the time Mom and Dad arrived, late in October, she had got a job as a typist/ file clerk, with the local Police department.  Dad asked her how she liked the job.  The work wasn’t hard and the guys treated her nice but….”They use a lot of funny words.”  What kind of words?  Well, a bunch of ‘em, but especially, they’s always talkin’ about Caucasians.  What’s a Caucasian??  My Mom said, “Well, you’re a Caucasian.”  No I’m not!  I’m an Amurrican!!  This from a nineteen-year-old high-school graduate.  That No Shirt, No Shoes rule means they don’t get out much.

There’s no rule that says you have to be worldly-wise to be happy, or successful.  I’m a small-town boy.  I can appreciate the bucolic peace and serenity of being out of the social rat-race, but I’m glad Al Gore invented the Internet.