Saturday, June 9, 2012

100 Miles

Another aborted trip to New Mexico today. There have actually been very few aborted trips in the last 30 years or more, a couple of times when other duties interfered, and a couple of times -- like today -- in which vehicle problems made the trip impossible.

Today, I got a hundred miles down the Central Valley, as far as Atwater, when a loud grinding noise started coming from the rear of the van. Had to stop. Luckily, I was near an exit from the freeway, and there was a convenient parking lot next to an O'Reilly's auto parts store where I pulled in and called AAA.

They couldn't find an open repair shop in Atwater, bless their hearts for trying. I told them I'd try to find one and call them back. I checked with the people inside the O'Reilly's -- and we had a good laugh because the staff had mostly just started working there and they were transferred from other locations to this one. One of them said, "I could tell you what's open in Merced, but I don't know anything about Atwater." Another went to check with the manager and said there was a place called Tony's on the other side of the freeway overpass, to the right. Wasn't sure whether it was open on Saturday or not, but it would be worth a try.

It didn't seem like a very long hike, so I decided to go scouting. Did not find a place called "Tonys" but did find a place called "Moore's" (which was closed) and another across the street which was open.

Spoke to the woman there and she said they could stay open while the van was towed to the shop; if they could diagnose and repair today, they would. Otherwise, they would have to wait till Monday, but I could leave the van.

Well, sure. Why not? I told her where it was and I would have it towed; process would probably take forty-five minutes to an hour. She thought that would be fine.

So, the van was picked up and towed to the shop, and almost as soon as I managed to get it into the service bay -- watched by a crowd of onlookers -- the shop closed for the rest of the weekend. I laughed.

Meanwhile, I'd arranged to be picked up and transported the 100 miles north to where I'd started from.

It was an adventure. It really was. I don't know what's wrong with the van. It may be transmission, differential, wheel bearings, catalytic converter or all of them or none of them. It's an old van and things go wrong with it, usually reparable without too much trouble but for the mighty expense, and we go on.

Though the saga of the van is an adventure in its own right -- the stories I and it could tell! -- it was the people I encountered along the way and what was happening to them that truly grabbed me. Made me think. And in many ways, made me grateful.

First it was the people at O'Reilly's who clearly wanted to help, but they were so new to the area they weren't able to provide more than very sketchy guidance. While I was walking over the freeway to see if I could find "Tony's", I passed a number of teen boys walking purposefully in the opposite direction. They were somewhat giddy, and I nodded a greeting as they passed. They smiled. One said, "Hello." Not much farther on, I passed by a number of teen girls shouting at drivers to come get their cars washed! I couldn't see where they were washing cars, although there was a self-service car wash just up the street. I was surprised at the amount of traffic; this was a sparsely ornamented but very busy section of town. As I turned south at the second stop light, I encountered a couple of people sitting on concrete benches under canopies at a local transit stop. There was a middle aged woman -- I nodded to her -- and a late-teen boy enraptured by one of those devices that everyone has these days. He paid no attention to me at all.

The people at the car repair place, customers and staff alike, were mostly Spanish-speaking, and my halting Spanish got a few stares. I never know whether native Spanish speakers stare because it's still so unusual for an Anglo to try to speak Spanish, or because I mangle the language so badly. At any rate, despite the stares, they were very friendly and let me know they would do what they could; if it meant they couldn't do anything until Monday, at least the van would be safe inside.

As I headed back to the site where I'd left the van, I passed the same woman and the teen boy at the transit stop and nodded to the woman again; she smiled. I don't think she was waiting for a bus, but maybe she was. The boy was still engrossed in his device. I called AAA as I walked, telling them of the repair shop I'd found and asking them to send a tow truck. The teen girls were still shouting at drivers to come get their cars washed. I thought that was a little silly because the wind was very high and there was much dust in the air. Atwater is in the midst of the Central Valley's agricultural area, and dust was being kicked up for miles all around, in some places thick enough to obscure vision. Right where I was, the dust was noticeable but wind was the main problem.

As I walked north, I saw two women up ahead walking with several children, one in a stroller, in the direction I was going. They were going slow because of the wind. They turned west and I followed, catching up with them at the second stop light where we were all going to cross the street. As we crossed with the walk light, vehicles intending to make a left turn onto that street waited. Most did. One didn't, a large pick up (I think it was a Dodge Ram)  driven by a seemingly oblivious not young but not old man decided not to wait and nearly ran into one of the children walking with the group. One of the women started shouting at the driver, cursing and otherwise berating him, and I said to the other woman, "That was scary; he wasn't paying any attention at all." She said, "He could have hit the girl." The girl said, "Shouldn't we do something?" The other woman said, "Yeah, get out of the street before they run us down." She shouted at the driver, "Pedestrians have the right of way, you know!" She called him a name but I didn't hear it. The man stuck his head out the window and said, "I saw you; I never got that close to you. You don't have to shout and curse like that."

The woman said, "You nearly ran over my daughter!" She called him a name again. The girl said, "Yeah."

The other woman said to me, "I've never seen anything like it. This is completely crazy." I agreed.

We had the right of way. Not just because we were pedestrians in a crosswalk, but because the light was in our favor, starting to count down as we reached about midway across the street. The woman I was talking to said that though we had the right of way and the walk light was in our favor, the cars wanting to turn left onto that street also had a green arrow. Some of them obviously didn't know the rules of the road, though. Nevertheless, we made it across through the clot of cars and continued on our way.

I managed to get back to the van well before the arrival of the tow truck. The tow truck driver was jolly as they usually are when they show up to help with one of my vehicles in distress. Since the van was in a marked parking place, he said we'd have to push it to get it into position to tow it. He wanted me to sit inside and turn the wheel while he pushed. With the engine off, of course, turning the steering wheel was no easy task, and I was turning it the wrong way anyway. He said, "No, no, no, not that way, the other way, I want to load it from the front." He came over to help me turn the steering wheel the other way, and I said, "You know, if I start the engine, this will be a lot easier."

"You can start it?!" he said, amazed.

"Oh yeah," I said, "I bet I can even drive it to where you need it to be to load onto the truck. I shouldn't drive any distance, though, because of that grinding noise."

He was thrilled. I started the van and drove it the twenty feet or so needed to position it for loading. I could hear the grinding noise, but the tow truck driver said all he heard was the catalytic converter rattling.

He loaded the van onto the truck very efficiently and fast, and I got in the truck while he got ready to drive us to the repair shop. He had the address wrong, but I told him the name of the place, and he knew approximately where it was. Suddenly though, he leaped out of the truck and opened the hood. He jiggled with some wires, came to look at what I thought was a GPS device, then closed the hood. He said, "Damn computer's always going out!" I laughed.

Maneuvering around the parking lot and then the roads to get to the freeway overpass was like a game of Chutes and Ladders; I had never seen such a complicated set of not well connected parking lots and roadways. Living in an urban area in California and a rural one in New Mexico has got me used to straight streets (more or less) that meet at right angles (more or less), where one can get from place to place with relative ease. We were dealing with something completely different in this recently developed freeway commercial area of Atwater.

These new-fangled streets curve in all directions, they do not meet at right angles -- if they meet at all -- and it is impossible to make a left turn from most parking lots or streets into any other. Right turns from parking lots or streets are liable to get you face to face with dilemmas you never thought you'd face, because if you don't already know the route to your destination, you're liable not to find it.  At least not easily.

The driver did find his way, though, and soon enough we were at the repair shop, a modest crowd awaiting us.

The driver pulled up at the side of the building while I went in to see where they wanted the van. The woman said they were going to move some of the vehicles in front, and if the driver could park in front, it should be easy enough to get the van into the shop. We discussed it with the driver, and it didn't seem like that was going to work, because the street in front was very busy, and the truck would be facing the wrong way. The woman said the driver could actually drive onto the sidewalk, and when I said that to him, he said, "Nooooo!" It was very narrow, too narrow for his truck, and I could see how dangerous it was. She asked me if I could drive the van, and I said for a short distance, yes. She said that if the driver left the van on the street right where he'd parked, I could then drive it onto the sidewalk and into the shop.

This we agreed was the correct plan. The van was deposited at the curb and I started it up. There was no grinding, just the sound of what they all agreed was the catalytic converter rattling. I made a u-turn in the middle of the street, and as I started onto the sidewalk, having made a left turn, I could hear the grinding noise, and I thought maybe it was the transmission, and I wouldn't make it. But sure enough, I got the van into the service bay, and the repairman said in Spanish that he needed a key which I gave him and that he wouldn't be able to do anything with it till Monday; the problem he identified was the catalytic converter. I told him there was another noise not just the rattle, a loud grinding noise coming from the rear as well. I mangled the Spanish so badly he had no idea what I was saying, so another worker translated. One day, I'm really going to have to learn to speak this tongue properly!

The repairman said that they'd find out on Monday what was wrong. I said OK, but that I needed my bags from the van. He said that the building was alarmed so what was inside would be safe. I was carrying a load of mostly books to our place in NM. I really wasn't worried about the stuff.

I thanked him and told the woman that I would be out of town next week, but she had my contact information and could reach me at that phone number no matter where I was. She thanked me and said they would call on Monday as soon as they knew what was wrong and I could decide what to do then.

I thanked her and the rest of the staff and set out to meet my ride -- who was on her way and would probably arrive in about half an hour/45 minutes by my estimation. I passed by the woman at the transit stop again. She'd moved to a bench closer to the street, probably so she could see what was going on better. She asked me if I thought they could get the van going again. I said I didn't know, they couldn't do anything until Monday. She asked me where I was from. I said I'd come from Sacramento.

She said, "Oh, I thought you were from out of state, don't you have New Mexico license plates?" Well, there's only one, but yes, it is from New Mexico. I told her NM was my other home and I was headed that way when the van broke down. Oh, she was so sorry. She said she hoped they could get it going again, so I could continue on my way, and I said, "Yes, I hope so, too. We'll find out day after tomorrow." She said, "Oh, I hope it is good news!" and she gave me such a big smile. I thanked her and continued walking. The boy was gone, whether he got on a bus or not, I don't know. The girls were gone from the intersection, too. But traffic was even heavier than before.

I next encountered an older couple trying to negotiate the freeway overpass on foot, with the wind blowing strong in their faces. I was grateful that the wind was more or less at my back (it was really more from the side but gusts were in all directions). The woman was carrying what looked like a sack of groceries. The man was trying to keep his hat on his head. The sidewalk was narrow, the wind was high. I was carrying bags, too. We managed to do a little dance to get by one another, and the man laughed at our mutual predicament.

Yes. Indeed. I thought maybe their car had broken down too. And we made do.

I managed to get to the convenient McDonald's at the foot of the overpass and set myself up in a corner with a soft drink to wait. I recalled that McDs often have WiFi, and sure enough, this one did, so I decided to check alternative travel ideas, including going back and renting a car for the trip to NM while the van was being repaired. And then I thought I was just completely crazy for thinking that way. The trip would have to be postponed. That's all there was to it. Shortly my ride called and said she had arrived. I told her where I was, and we met. She drove us back north and we discussed various alternatives, the thought being that if the van was repaired by next weekend, I would plan to come back to Atwater, pick up the van and continue to NM. She'd drive me back to pick up the van.

As we were discussing this, I thought how incredibly lucky I really was and how even a setback like this is mild compared to what so many Americans are going through. Perspective.

So we get back to Sacramento, the cat is rolling around beguilingly ("I knew you'd be back," she seems to be saying), we have a lovely dinner, laugh and chat, and all of a sudden I hear what sounds like a parade outside. No, it's a modern music (think Jonathan Richman) band warming up in a neighbor's back yard, and after a while they start to play, and they are really very good. Now years ago, when we first moved to this neighborhood, there was a band that rehearsed at a house nearby that was not very good. I never knew which house they were rehearsing at, but it may have been the house where this band is playing. (They're playing as I type.)

And I think how very nice this impromptu concert is. Isn't that something. What a surprise, and as it happens, a treat.

Setbacks and surprising joy.

A hundred miles each direction, a dozen or so interesting people, each with their own passions and situations, a day in the life...

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