America—3.5 Million Square Miles of Stuff

 

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           There’s a small motel located off the main road on which I travel daily that has been there for as long as I can remember. It’s the type of place that reminds me of something from another era; where one expects to see congenial men playing checkers over a barrel and waving at the cars as they pass by.

            The motel has outlived the Budget Inn that was kitty-corner across the road, although the large Budget Inn sign still remains years after the inn was leveled. The inn itself has been replaced with an acre or two of blank asphalt fronting endless rows of self-storage units. I keep imagining tired travelers pulling in at the sign, parking their car, and saying to one another, “Well, this is a colossal disappointment.”

            The small motel across the street is still there, though, divided into a series of tidy duplex buildings. They’re almost cabin-like, slumbered under a canopy of trees behind a large in-ground pool. It’s nothing fancy, but I suspect it’s well kept.

            The check-in desk is also the home of the current owners, who must always be ready for arriving guests. Here we are, here’s your key, please enjoy your stay, all for forty-six bucks a night. Not forty-five. Forty-six. The kitchenette is extra, but they have color TV, free HBO, and in a nod to the times, free WiFi. Not a bad deal for the weary traveler for less than fifty bucks. On a hot summer day, it’s not at all uncommon to see bathing-suited nomads catapult through the air and belly flop into the pool, while others lounge around the rim as if they are in Cabo, not caring that they are only a few dozen feet from four lanes of traffic and a Mazda dealership.

            On most weekend nights, a brightly lit neon No shares space with the Vacancy sign, but on weeknights, it doesn’t. During no-vacancythe day, I can often see the housekeeping cart in front of the units as they tidy up the rooms for the next guests. I’ve never had a reason to stop to see what it’s like, but I’m glad it’s still there, and I hope it stays. The past few years have brought a westward creep of car dealers, and it would be a shame to have the place plowed over for yet another generic vendor of automobiles.

            Most days I drive by without giving the motel a second glance, but sometimes I think about it, mostly because I’ve always known it to be there. It’s one of the many local landmarks that are seared into my brain. This is either a casualty or a benefit to living within twenty-five miles of where I sit right now for all of my sixty-plus years. I’ve been here so long that I know what used to be where something else is now, and I’m comfortable with that familiarity. Sometimes I ask myself if that’s good or bad.

           This does help a person such as me who has the sense of direction of one of those squirrels who suddenly realizes that he’s in the middle of traffic, but can’t decide if he should go left, right or straight up. That’s me in a car in an area which I am unfamiliar. I’m that dazed squirrel.

            “Oh, this looks about right,” I’ll say, turning north when I should be heading south, yielding to whatever directional whim looks reasonable. I navigate by benchmarks, yet even so, I drove right by the road that leads to my sister’s house the other day, and kept going a good three miles before I realized this had happened. I suddenly said to my wife, “where the hell am I going?” and she calmly replied, “Should I set the GPS?” It’s not that I didn’t know where my sister’s house was; I simply drove right by the street by a good mile and turned down some other street, completely thinking I was lostheading in the right direction. I then turned into one of the hundreds of faceless subdivisions around here, hoping it would send me closer to where I was supposed to be, but I got completely lost in the ant maze of streets named after shrubbery. I ended up going around in a huge circle, eventually popping out on the same wrong road I started on.

            This all comes into play because my wife and I are at an age where we’re starting to think about what happens next. I love our house and the land that’s around it, but at some point, it simply won’t be practical. It’ll be too big with too much maintenance as other interests and priorities begin to spring up. Sure, active weekends spent weeding and trimming bushes and mowing the lawn can be great fun, but so can going out and doing other things, and the scales are starting to tip a little towards the latter. Do I really want to spend my seventies and eighties mowing the same lawn I’ve mowed thousands of times already?

            The weather here is largely agreeable, even so, the winters can get a little dreary, but I’m not ready for Florida and I don’t think I ever will be. And of course, there are the onerous New York taxes, which are the highest in the nation. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra—if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere for a heck of a lot less.

            When AARP sends out their monthly magazine, there is often an article on the best places to retire, and the town in which I live is never on that list, nor is any other town in the entire state. South Dakota comes up often, yet the only thing I know about South Dakota is that Belle Fourche is the geographical center of the United States. Most of the towns that make these lists look beautiful when I look at them online, but a fancy brochure has fooled me more than once. Brochures can make Binghampton look swanky.

            Mrs. G. and I have traveled a bit, and we’ve seen France, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, most of the Caribbean islands, Alaska and maybe a dozen or so other states in the US. Any one of these places has some quality that would make them a nice place to live. I was especially taken with Alaska, but I also liked the Provence region of France and Berlin was fascinating. Would I move to any one of them? Nope. Why? Well, our family is here. That’s important, but people move all the time, sometimes even far away.

            Which brings up something interesting.

            The other day, Mrs. G. showed me a magazine article she was reading about a couple that had refurbi71677shed an older Airstream trailer. It was towable with an SUV, and the inside had about the same square footage as our spare bedroom. Suddenly the idea of hooking up a small trailer of some kind and taking off had an exciting appeal. Keep a home base where we’re familiar, but see what’s out there. Get lost but in a planned sort of way.

            I don’t know if we’ll ever do it, but our bucket list unexpectedly had a new bullet point, and from where I sit right now, it doesn’t look all that bad. Who knows? Maybe we can stop at one of those small motels somewhere—one with a color TV and a swimming pool—and finally see what that’s all about.

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Driving Me Crazy

 

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It was the spring of 1970 when I, a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old, drove my mother’s lime green American Motors Hornet to the absolute failure of my first road test. This wasn’t a “wait for the results to come in the mail” failure; this was a “son, you’ve just failed,” level of failure. I was crushed. After all, I had been driving our previous family car, a nineteen foot long Pontiac Bonneville since I was twelve or so to deliver the Sunday newspapers, and had practiced diligently on all manner of roadways once I got my learner’s permit. I thought this test was in the bag.

            What did I do? I hit a pothole. There was a car coming in the other lane, and swerving wasn’t an option, so I slowed down to a crawl and rolled over the edge of the road crater. What I should have done, according to the clipboard-toting monster who failed me, was to stop completely, turn on my blinker, and drive around it. His notes said that I failed to see a road obstruction. Was this fair? I have no idea. Probably, but in all the miles I have driven since 1970, I have never, not once, stopped, put on my blinker, and drove around a pothole. The accepted strategy is to either straddle the thing or hit it hard enough to send bits of suspension parts flying in all directions followed by a solid round of creative swearing. To this day, the reasoning behind the particular driving rule that crushed my teenage soul still bewilders me.

            I got over it of course and passed my next road test with flying colors, which began what has been a mostly uneventful forty-eight years of driving. Two speeding tickets, one ticket before there were laws against such things for driving while using my phone at 6:30 in the morning on a deserted country road, and one warning for not having a flag on a single piece of shoe molding that was on the back of my truck. The exact words of the state trooper who let me go with a warning were, “That could have put my partner’s eye out.” It should be noted that his partner was shielded behind at least six feet of squad car hood and a windshield, but duly noted. I taped a flag on the molding.

            As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become even more cautious on the road. I drive the speed limit, or no more than five miles per hour over it, I use my turn signals even when I leave my own driveway, and I cut a wide berth around people jogging or walking along the roadside. I seldom use my horn, unless somebody is being a complete turd, and I never toss litter out the window, unless you want to count the occasional lump of stale chewing gum.

            So here’s where I’m confused.

            I often find myself driving in the city where it seems as if all manner of road courtesy has been crumpled up into a little ball and set on fire. Pedestrians and bicyclists alike will meander out into traffic as if they are surrounded by a force field that makes them impervious to the mass of a two and a half ton Dodge Ram pickup truck. Green light, red light, no light, no crosswalk, doesn’t matter. Out they go, daring people to brake so hard that their feet punch through the floorboards, causing them to Flintstone nal_jaywalk042011b_171500a_8coltheir vehicle to a halt. I don’t want to hit you, Mr. Metropolitan Wanderer, but c’mon already, and while I’m all for the energy saving, health benefits of bicycling, the rules of the road also apply to you, buster. That means stopping your vehicle at red lights.

            I also don’t understand those lanes that are clearly marked for buses only, so if I want to make a right-hand turn, do I turn across that lane or use the lane?  And what about the bicycle lane that for some reason is painted in the middle of the road?  Can I drive on that?

            Oh, here’s another one: Do I yield to the person who is checking Facebook while driving or do I use my aforementioned rule of blowing the horn at turds to jar him back to reality? What about the guy who I see at least once a day who is eating off a plate with a fork? That requires an entirely new level of table manners. Or the young guys on motorcycles who not only zigzag through traffic, but pop off wheelies for no reason other than to check their bad-boy reflection on the front fender.

It’s gettidriving-eatingng bad out there, people. Time was when the worst thing on the road was the person who left their blinker on for miles, but now it’s gotten crazy. I was trying to merge onto the expressway the other day and was finally able to make my move before I ran out of lane when somebody pulled up alongside me, not budging an inch. On the plus side, he wasn’t trying to saw his way through a T-bone and a baked potato, but that didn’t make his douchebaggery any less egregious. It seems that lately, the open road has become a Roman gladiator pit, only a lot less congenial. I’m seriously thinking about mounting sword blades on my wheels to discourage the rambling drivers who simply cannot stay in between the lines.

I know I’m not that old because I’m not driving a Crown Victoria with a row of baseball hats on the rear parcel shelf, but don’t they teach people how to drive anymore? Does the DMV use the same parameters for new drivers as Home Depot uses for their department experts? Got a pulse? Here’s your apron.

Anyway, that’s my annual gripe about the state of modern life, and it’s been brewing inside of me for a while, but I swear to you that I didn’t write this while driving. I couldn’t. I was too busy eating soup, steering with my knees, adjusting the radio, checking my Instagram status, and taking a selfie.

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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             The love/hate relationship that an upstate New Yorker has with weather is never more apparent than when it starts to snow. This gets so intense that the cities of Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester all compete in an annual Snow Derby and local news channels will often give away a snow blower to whoever guesses the total amount of snowfall for the season.  We have taken what can occasionally be a miserable, cold and inconvenient time of the year and turned it into a sport. How can you not love that kind of craziness?

           The snowbirds have long since flocked to Boca Raton for the winter, leaving behind only the hardiest of New Yorkers to fend off whatever the season throws at us. We may complain about it but we also revel in it. At the first sign of a snowflake, we even embrace the practicality of dressing as if mirrors were suddenly illegal. Fashion be damned, it’s cold out there, so bring it on, Mother Nature. I have a fur-lined earflap hat and I’m not afraid to use it.

            An hour or so before I went to bed the other night, it was twenty-nine degrees above zero, so naturally, I kept checking the thermometer every fifteen minutes to see if it was going to go any lower. I have one of those indoor weather stations with a transmitter outside that has a twirly wind gauge, which is a fair indicator of how seriously we take weather around here. I also looked out the window at the snowfall and did the flake math to see if I’d have to plow in the morning.

            Even though we missed the record low temperature by a mile, it still snowed some more, so I had to clear our driveway. We have four-wheel drive in both of our vehicles, but I keep the driveway clear anyway. It looks better and besides, it gives me a chance to fire up Big Orange and rip through the snow piles. Big Orange is what I call my snow blower. It replaced Little Orange last year as it became increasingly apparent to me that I needed wanted a much larger, heavier machine with hand warmers.

            Which brings me to my topic of the day.

            As anyone who has a driveway knows, the crunchy stuff near the road is the worst.  These are the spoils which have been left behind by the town plows, spoils that are usually filled with ice chunks, fenderbergs, mailbox posts, lumps of sod, recycling tubs, pieces of the concrete gutter, sleds and whatever else is scraped off of the road. Just last week, I saw an entire newspaper fly out the snow blower chute in a burst of confetti and I didn’t even blink an eye.

            Anyway, it was starting to get light out when I layered up and I went outside with the dog and fired up Big Orange. I won’t lie—this is my winter baby. It has an electric starter, a canopy and the aforementioned hand warmers because if one is going to live in a snow globe, one has to have the equipment to dig their way out of it and as long as we’re going to the power equipment toy store anyway, let’s get a big machine with hand warmers to do the job.

             As I was merrily chugging along, blowing snowy contrails off into the wild blue yonder, I saw the archenemy of driveway shovelers coming down the road— the town snowplow and its T-shirt clad driver. The heating system in these trucks must go from off directly to pottery kiln because I have never, in all my years, seen one of these guys wearing a long-sleeved shirt let alone a jacket. I think they would plow the roads in the nude if the unions allowed it.

            snow-plow1 We made brief eye contact as he drove down the opposite side of the street, filling the aprons of my neighbors’ driveways with three feet of nasty, crunchy snow. He showed no remorse at all because let’s face it—we all know he enjoyed it. There’s supposed to be road salt in the back of these trucks, but I have never seen it. I think it’s filled with bits of ancient glaciers and they let loose a load every so often right at the foot of selected driveways.

            By the time the driver went around the outside rim of the cul-de-sac, I was only halfway done and since we had made eye contact, he couldn’t fill in my driveway apron. Not while I was watching anyway, so he spent the next fifteen minutes driving around in pokey spirals, sculpting a small mountain in the center of the circle. By the time he was done, it resembled a massive gumdrop, and if it keeps snowing, it’ll be an ever-expanding sledding hill that will last most of the winter.

           I had finished up with my driveway and the areas around the fire hydrant and my mailbox when he noticed everything was clear. He made one more perfunctory pass around his snow hill project and then aimed the large truck towards my driveway. Then he waited for a second and blipped the gas pedal. This was it. I was sure he was looking for some more snow so that he could bury my handiwork, but as he slowly rolled up to my driveway, he raised the plow blade just enough to spare me the road sludge.

           As I turned Big Orange around and headed back towards the garage, he gave a little beep from his horn, and while laying a finger aside of his nose, he gave a small nod and up the street, he drove. Or something like that. Anyway, his act of kindness made me forget all about wanting to chase him down with a pointy snow stake, had this gone in another direction.

             So I want to give a public thank you to the snowplow driver for giving the neighborhood kids an excellent place to play and for not burying my driveway apron.

             Happy New Year, buddy.

             And for everybody who reads these little tales I tell, thank you. Here’s wishing you all the best for the New Year.

             See you in 2018. Maybe not as often, but when a tale needs to be told, I’ll be here.

 

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