Tag Archives: driving

Deus ex Fiat.

Too much, The Magic Bus!

Too much, The Magic Bus!

I didn’t much care for the Scion Xb, aka The Magic Bus, when it first came on the car market. It was squat and square and, I thought then, butt ugly. At the time I was in the carnie/trinket selling business and needed a vehicle with more cargo space than my poltergeist-possessed VW Golf. Only after I saw the Scion’s price tag and the gas mileage did I realize that the homely little Xbox Toaster was my road tripping solution (and possibly vehicular soulmate). An unexpected benefit to owning this shoe box on wheels is that for a while, Mike and I were “hip.” It was the must-have car of the next generation and we were pretty freaking cool for having it. The Magic Bus with its square, low body is still a standout among today’s ho-hum, round-edged, kidney bean-shaped cars.

We’ve driven lots of those kidney beans as rentals for Mike’s job. They’re basically all the same with dark interiors, confounding seat controls, various cup holder configurations, and maybe Sirius radio on a good day. Mike once had a Mercedes by chance for a rental. He was so enthused about its ride and interior quality that he came to take me for a spin so I could experience the luxury and comfort and fine German engineering. I didn’t get it; the car seemed like all the other kidney beans we’d driven.

We rented a car in Toronto a few weeks back, a car that I also didn’t like when it first came on the market but have been giving a second look after the monotonous stream of kidney beans. Luxury and comfort bore me — I want FUN. I personally thought the advertisement for the car which featured J Lo missed the mark; Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye would have been much better spokespersons for this car. You know which one it is  — the Fiat 500. The car rental agent didn’t even get the offer out of his mouth before I pounced on the car. If The Magic Bus is a shoe box, the Fiat is the shoe.

We compressed our luggage into the compartment that imagined itself a trunk and squeezed ourselves into the bucket seats. Being a small (but fierce!) person, I rolled the driver’s seat all the way forward until the front cup holder disappeared into the seat. No matter; the fun factor would certainly outweigh any such small inconveniences. And the car had the definite advantage of needing only half a parking space.

After a brief twirl around Toronto, where all young office workers seemed to wear black, I inserted our tiny car into westbound rush hour traffic. The spritz of rain that began near the city was pummeling us viciously by the time we neared our suburban destination. Darkness had fallen, making the unfamiliar freeway a hellish racecourse. Our tiny Fiat was about the size of one of the tires on the tractor-trailer dragons roaring around us. I finally jettisoned off our exit, spitting expletives like a wet cat. I hoped for better weather the following day for our drive to Niagara Falls.

And I got it! The sun, hosted by a clear sky,  beamed as if not a drop of rain had fallen the previous day. If there had been sheep in the area I’m sure they would have frolicked happily, particularly since their heavy coats would have held at bay the now very crisp one digit Celsius temperature displayed on the Fiat’s dashboard. Back onto the Canadian highway these two Texans-via-Virginia in the Italian car rolled, our female English-speaking GPS sounding flat and dull beside the French-speaking announcer on the bossa nova radio station. All was well.

Abruptly, another voice filled the car — a female voice, speaking French. Who was that? I eased off the gas pedal. There she was again — repeating the sentence in French. The only word I could catch between the radio and the GPS demands was “possible.” What was happening? Why was the car talking? I immediately assumed something was terribly wrong with the car (despite the continued placid dashboard lighting) — surely the engine was going to freeze up and we would have to pay for the entire car since we hadn’t taken the extra insurance the rental company always tries to sell. Or, was it Customs? Had Customs checked up on me and found that I had a few undeclared grapes rolling around my backpack when we disembarked the plane the previous day? Could Customs track me somehow to the Canadian suburbs and call me to account this very minute for those grapes? I was in a panic. My deodorant failed. The righteous arrest I wanted to achieve in my lifetime did not include grapes, a rental car, or Canada.

The great dragon semis were huffing past us again on both sides, filling the rear view mirror, and showing no mercy to our suspected government spy mobile. (In fact I was a little surprised at just how fast the Canadians seemed to be driving overall; I thought American had a corner on the speed market.) I had to find a safe place to pull over and figure out what to do about the car.

Then, I had a really terrifying thought. What if this was God? What if God was in the Fiat — Deus ex Fiat! Hadn’t there been bells along with the voice? Was I being called to account for my not infrequent willfulness or my unrestrained mouth? Had God seen that I had used electrical tape on The Magic Bus’ license plate to make a line above the “E” so people would understand “IM QUEN”? Did God disagree with my contention that all the unopened soap in the hotel room belonged to me because I had paid for the room? Was I being judged for all the extra fast food napkins I’d stored in the glove compartment of the car? Had God heard about my firing candy pumpkins off my toy catapult over the heads of the Amish at the Hershey trade show? Had God seen me write “drag queens and freaks” in chalk on our ruraburban driveway?

Wait, I thought, trying to calm down and not be run over while I searched for a pull-off spot. Wait. Did God speak French? Did Canadians even believe in God? And above all, the voice was female. God was supposed to be male, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?? Which was worse:  God, God being French, God being female, or Customs and those damn grapes? Given a choice between God in any of those forms or Customs, I’d take God. Either way, reckoning  was assuredly at my driver’s door. I just never thought it would happen in Canada while driving Fifi the Fiat.

I finally veered onto a side road and pulled into a dirt driveway with potholes bigger than the Fiat. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” I said to Mike, who had borne the entire episode with shocking calm and stoicism. “I’m going to turn the car off, then turn it on again and see what happens.” I fully expected it to either blow up or not start at all. I turned the key and the car quit. I took a deep calming breath, then turned the key to “on”. The Fiat restarted.

A message, in English, scrolled across the dashboard: “Significant temperature drop, possible ice on road.”

We continued to Niagara Falls, and saw a rainbow. Neither God nor Customs had anything further to say.

Is God in the machine?

Is God in this machine?


Around Boston (sometimes wearing a perfect hat).

And now, for your continued enjoyment, the travelog I never intended to write continues. 

We propellered off to the Boston area over Memorial Day. In another life, I spent a year living in nearby Lowell, where I existed on macaroni & cheese at 5 boxes for $1.00, my Texas-born dog learned about snow, and I temped at legendary places like Purity Grocery Stores, Wang and NEC Technologies. (Evidently I have a history of working for sinking ships or those already plundered by corporate pirates.) This was my first return to the area since those long-ago days. We quartered south in Brockton for Mike’s business travels scheduled after the weekend. 

The slide show at the end of this post has a highlight or three, and here are a few additional discoveries/thoughts/triumphs:

I get better reception on my cell phone on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean than in the house where I live.

 My brothers possess the super power of guilty timing, phoning me Memorial Day from my parents’ gravesite to tell me they love me, while I am out watching whales.

The Northeast is obsessed with karaoke.

It takes two days to feel the full effects of climbing and descending the 294 steps of the Bunker Hill Monument.

If it stinks, call it brie. “Funnel cake” is far more appetizing than “fried dough.”

Trying to get a prize-winning photo of a whale on a slow camera is not a good use of time; better to watch the whales and savor the memory. I’m pleased to say I figured that out quickly, right after missing the first breach. I’m also pleased I knew my perfect hat would be eaten by a whale courtesy of the wind serving it up, and therefore left it behind.

A temporary tattoo will survive a shower if not scrubbed with a washcloth. The “Dart of Death” still proudly rides my upper arm.

What half-wit decided on the area-wide policy of giving no quarter to cars moving onto the highway? Play nice already.

Dunkin’ Donuts shops spontaneously regenerate.

The attitude of USAirways gate agents varies widely. At La Guardia airport on our way to Boston, we were moved onto an earlier available flight without the least brow-beating or additional wallet-scouring. When I inquired at Logan for the same on my departure Monday afternoon, I was summarily dismissed and also witnessed a passenger being yelled at from 50 yards away by the same gate agents. Fly those friendly skies, I say.

Whales have bad breath. Should we tell them?

Rental cars should be standardized, or come with a manual. A keyless push-button ignition is disconcerting despite probably being a good idea.

I have little patience for public transportation. On arrival at the Brockton train station for our Sunday trip into Boston, the mechanized voice informed us  that the train we had risen early to meet was somewhere else, not moving, and it updated that unhappy status every minute. Five minutes of this Fritz Lang Metropolis voice of bad news had me wanting to “baa!!” like a mindless sheep in a herd. We were definitely going to miss our scheduled historical walking tour. Taking matters into my own hands (and imposing my will on Mike), we (I) drove to Boston, easily securing parking which cost a fraction of the train ticket, and allowing us to arrive and depart when we wanted. There were no complicated schedules to decipher with exceptions for full moons, local vegetarian festivals or the mayor’s dog’s birthday. I like driving. It represents freedom to me. Call me a rebel. Rather a Bostonian attitude, I think.

What really happened to the donut Mike said he was taking to the car for me? Should I post its photo on a telephone pole?

A guided city tour is a good investment. Who knew JFK was going to settle the space program in Boston, only to have the program relocated to Texas by LBJ after JFK’s death? And how many people know about drowning by molasses? Or that John Adams provided legal defense for the British troops involved in the Boston Massacre? Or that the USS Constitution is still in service? We trolleyed the city on a sunny, breezy afternoon, and it was worth it, bad bean jokes and all.

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Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, seen from beneath a perfect hat.

Last Sunday’s jaunt to Baltimore produced some noteworthy lessons: preconceived notions can be pleasantly wrong; if you have a Perfect Hat, why leave home without it; and taking the wrong way can be the right thing to do.

 The answer to the question, “If I got my ticket, can I ride?” posed by the excellent Jubilant Sykes got him a road trip with me via the Magic Bus’ sound system, as we bobbed and weaved northward behind Mike’s smokin’ hot 4 cyl. (cough, cough, lug, lug) black Dodge Avenger rental. I walked out of the house with my sensible Georgia Peanut Tour baseball hat, then at the last instant I leaped from the Bus and dashed back in for my Perfect Hat, dispelling the feeling of having left behind something important. 

I know there was a television series about Baltimore called The Wire; I’ve never seen it. There’s not a place on earth that doesn’t have its shortcomings, and maybe Baltimore has more than some. But I’ve heard disparaging remarks about cities that turned out to be the prejudice or misunderstanding of the speaker. For me, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and surrounding area were a Big Fun place to spend a Sunday afternoon. The Convention Center was hosting a cheer competition, and gaggles of girls in Spandex, sparkles and smiles bounded along sidewalks. Barnes & Noble had set up shop in the old power plant, its stout smokestacks rising beside racks of cookbooks and magazines. Goofy bright green and deep plum Puff the Magic Dragon-shaped boats, their occupants sealed like human hot dogs in orange lifejacket buns, muddled about between the USS Torsk, a submarine that sunk the last Japanese warship of World War II, and the Civil War-era wooden ship Constellation.  A pirate vessel sped at a remarkable clip across the water, all flags boldly flying, crossing waves with bright yellow sightseeing speedboats and blue & white water taxis.  The waterside was pleasantly crowded with tourists and locals together, taking in the sun and warmth and breezes of the day.

Almost at the very outset of the walking tour I signed us onto, I was mentally dope-slapped for my presumptions — that the low cost of the tour ($7) meant we’d stand outside the visitor’s center and the guide would point to things, drone a few facts, and we’d be finished in 30 minutes or less, and that she wasn’t spry enough to walk more than a few blocks. Wrong and wrong. Two hours and a goodly tramp later, guide Cheryl had proved herself a well of intriguing information (the American flag of Star Spangled Banner fame was so large its seamstress had to spread it on a brewery floor to sew it), patience (as I skittered here and there taking photos), insight (she didn’t miss anything I was thinking despite my bejeweled-skull sunglasses and Perfect Hat disguise), and a proud Baltimorean — neither Northern nor Southern — simply an excellent ambassador for a reinventing metropolis. Cheryl was old enough to reminisce about the smell of McCormick Spices before the company’s relocation from the harbor area, and knowledgeable enough to recommend where to eat crab cakes (which contain almost no breading and are as common at cookouts as hamburgs and at least the same size), that Vaccaro’s has the best cannoli (the first I’ve had, and pretty tasty), and that Nancy Pelosi is actually Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, daughter of a Baltimore mayor (I thought she sprang from the womb a fully formed adult in California).  

Our tour completed in Little Italy, which was exactly where I wanted to be for food. We took our hungry selves into Amicci’s, which declared itself “very casual,” and sits near the parking lot where Italian-themed movies are shown on a building’s outside wall on summer nights. After mussels in marinara and a side of tomatoes with mozzarella only the fact that we were on foot gave me hope of freeing up room for dessert at Vaccaro’s. Several blocks’ easy walk then took us back to the Magic Bus.

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In preparation for my drive back to our Virginia house, Mike drew me a beautiful map. Here it is, isn’t it impressive?

The way back.

I left my road warrior husband at his hotel prepping to battle bugs somewhere in the Baltimore area. Without the least sense of wifely disloyalty, I popped my man Robert Earl Keen into the music player, turned up the volume exponentially, rolled down the Magic Bus windows, and launched happily into the ride. How I have missed you, traffic and freeways! The excellence of the day was underlined by all slowdowns being in the opposite direction.

Then I came to the 495’s, south or west. I was GPS-less and the only paper map I had was Mike’s limited version. But beneath my Perfect Hat  my pleasantly fried brain couldn’t recall — should I take 495 south or 495 west? (Mike regales me frequently about the delightfulness of Washington, D.C.’s traffic and the countless “95’s” — 495, 695, 195, 895, 395 and so on, ad nauseum). A quick decision was necessary with minimal familiarity on my part with the names on the highway signs. South was moving along smoothly, and Virginia was south, so I chose that.

Within a mile, I realized I should have gone west. But I also didn’t much care. I was now singing as loud as I could with Robert Earl, and along came those lyrics, “I’ve got these thoughts in my own head. . .I’ve got this moment that I’m livin’ in and nothin’ else at all. . .I am a runaway locomotive, out of my one track mind.” Why ruin a perfect day with insignificant details like the “right” direction? I’d get to the house eventually; I didn’t have to be at notwork till Monday at 9:00a.m. So I snugged my Perfect Hat on a little tighter and continued what seemed to be downhill all the way (just like on a paper map, north to south), dueting endlessly with Robert Earl Keen (where had my voice been during Virtual Choir?), seeing what was to be seen along this new way.  And I took no offense at the semi that harrassed me for my place in the middle lane on I95, moving myself to one of the other two completely empty lanes and giving the truck driver a friendly single-finger wave and a “Hey, Dick, have a nice day!” beep from the Bus. Starry darkness accompanied the reality of my final westward swing near Richmond, Virginia, me and the Bus and my Who Do Man, Robert Earl.

I’m already planning another trip to Baltimore to see more of that eclectic city. And Robert Earl’s coming to town in June — I’ve got my ticket to sing more duets with him, live this time. And I’ll be wearing my Perfect Hat for both events.

"I gotta go somewhere, I gotta go!"

Puerto Rico, seen from beneath a perfect hat.

Mike finagled us a trip to Puerto Rico by speaking about insect mating disruption at a conference there. That subject deserves its own post because it’s really, really interesting. No kidding. Really.

Here are my impressions of Puerto Rico, before the pictures that paint a thousand words:

  1. The most important article of clothing turned out to be my hat, since the climate promptly styled my hair into havoc. (The hat is going to get its own post, too.)
  2. I took nice clothes in case we ate at a nice restaurant. We did eat at a nice restaurant, and I wore a tee shirt with a skull on it, and my hat.
  3. We didn’t see any surfers at Rincon, which is rumored to be a well known surfer’s paradise. The disappointment of not seeing them was mitigated by finding a heart-shaped rock on the beach.
  4.  This was my first experience of texting photos to my friends and receiving their immediate replies. Sweet. It was almost like having them there with me.
  5. It rains in the rain forest. Copiously.
  6. The most used accessory on a car in San Juan is the horn. However, we saw very few speeding drivers outside the city. In fact, we nearly crashed into a couple vehicles on the toll road going at least 20 mph under the speed limit. Then, there was that episode of bob & weave with the pickup truck overloaded with fruit. Death by banana is not my method of choice.
  7. Puerto Ricans are a people who will meet your eyes; there’s no stiff avoidance. They give you a thorough looking over. 
  8. I knew intrinsically that there would be no need for me to go inside the Lo Coquette Lingerie and Booty Shop. There would be nothing inside there to fit my booty. There will be another post addressing that issue; it will involve the hat.
  9. I now understand about the blue color of ocean water. Amazing.
  10. Based solely on how many food vendors line the roads outside San Juan, I don’t know how there can be a) any live chickens remaining since they’re all on grills and spits and b) why anybody would cook at home.
  11. I will not get on another airplane without some sort of earphones and music. I’m sure the gentleman from Tennessee was a lovely man, but I don’t sleep with my husband when he snores, and the prospect of a 4-hour flight beside a stranger thus engaged was dismal indeed. The flight attendant has my gratitude for re-seating me on a very full plane.
  12. Who’s cruel joke was it to have my return flight board beside one flying to Houston? The Queen was not amused.
  13. People will stare at someone who turns bright red from heat, though that someone is quite comfortable and unaware of her hue and is wearing a perfect hat.
  14. I respect Puerto Rico’s pride in its rum production, and sampled my share, but I’m staunchly loyal to Tito’s Vodka, made in Austin, Texas.

Now, about those photos. . .

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A Mixed Bag

I remember the day plastic bags appeared in stores, completely unannounced. They were strange, flimsy things and were totally unlike the sturdy brown paper bags that had been there just the day before. The quality comparison between brown paper and plastic bags became immediately obvious – there was none. Brown paper was to the bag kingdom as oak; plastic was as balsa wood.

Before long, however, it was virtually impossible to get a paper bag. Not unlike two-year plans for cell phones, plastic bags were the only type to be had. Where once I could have carried two brown paper bags full of groceries, I now juggled ten plastic bags. At home, the bags seemed to take on a life of their own; the two I stashed in a drawer somehow became a dozen, multiplying like bedbugs in a hotel. A feeble movement arose after some years offering a choice of paper or plastic, but it was half-hearted and far from universal.

I never asked that plastic bags replace paper. They were forced on me, probably by stores to reduce their own bag costs. But somehow as the years passed, I/we have somehow become responsible for their proliferation. Now if I forget to take the newest environmentally friendly reusable cloth bags when shopping, I must endure the accusing and smug look of the impossibly thin earth mother in line behind me as she archly hands her assortment of NPR, World Wildlife Federation and Whole Foods-branded bags to the checker. I’ll feel her disapproving gaze as the clerk rolls my non-organic, non-local foods over the scanner. Then she’ll herd her six children, each holding a yogurt popsicle and wearing Crocs, into her Prius with small white family composition decals in the back window (one partner, herself, six children of each gender, a mutt, 3 cats, and a turtle), which is parked beside my fossil-fuel powered car. Away she’ll go with her $500 worth of goat’s milk, gluten-free bread, free-range chicken and organic fair-trade coffee, nestled in her reusable, environmentally correct bags.

Buying organic is a nice idea, as is being environmentally friendly. I try to practice each concept as much as possible. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a scapegoat for every cause that somebody takes up so they can ride the moral high road and bump me into the virtual blame lane. We’re constantly admonished to buy local, buy organic, ride a bike instead of driving a car, use chemical-free cleaners and insecticides, use rags instead of paper towels and reuse, reuse, reuse.

I’m driving The Magic Bus, which consistently gets a respectable 32 mpg, because I refuse to purchase a car whose base price is over $20,000. It is also my own little space of refuge. I’d love to ride my bike to the store – if there was a store anywhere nearby. My country neighborhood has only a hamburg joint with anything prepared in oil or grease you could possibly desire. If I want to eat on a Sunday, I’m out of luck.

Organic and local products are always considerably more expensive than non-organic and non-local. I could get to know the food store personnel intimately since I would have to shop almost daily because organic produce spoils with marvelous speed.  The only store where organics are marginally affordable is Walmart. However, now that Walmart is viewed as having swallowed the soul of the world, shopping there is just about grounds for being cast into the wilderness without my can of 40 wt. DEET insecticide. Should I be thus punished, I will assuredly become a meal for every tick and mosquito, even if I were coated with chemical-free, environmentally friendly bug spray, since none of those formulas works for me, the human mosquito magnet. I would grow my own vegetables, except for that pesky total lack of sunlight in my yard, and my desire to avoid the tick-laden deer that populate it and eat every last plant.

 Our house water comes from a community well. The water is hard enough that I’ve used sand paper to clean the residue from the fixtures. The much-touted miracle vinegar and baking soda combo routinely fails to make a dent in any of the assortment of stains associated with the water; “elbow grease” doesn’t even apply here. Bring me the big guy – Mr. Clean – or the numbers – 409. Paper towels will be at the ready for the scrubbing and wiping, not the environmentally preferred rags, which would have to accumulate over several weeks into a crispy, stinking pile until there are enough to launder a full load rather than run the HE washer with anything less than that.

 I want to do the right thing for the planet and all those earth mothers with a minimum of six children each. But I want to do it without constant haranguing from the media, climate scientists, and strangers in the security line at the local airport. I also want to continue supporting myself in a responsible way, such as funding my older age.  I enjoy an adventure now and again, maybe going to the Big City to inhale the heady aromas of crowds, skyscrapers, exhaust fumes, and driven, energetic living. Those little escapes, as well as my older age funding, would be significantly curtailed if I adhered to every admonition to eat not just salad, but organic salad with lettuce cultivated under the waxing quarter moon by locals who bring it to market by carts drawn by unionized dogs; to buy my clothes from the boutique in town specializing in hemp sandals fashioned by disadvantaged South American Indian tribes and delivered here via an arduous journey on foot; to just ditch The Magic Bus and take government-subsidized Amtrak whose limited service adds at least a full day to any trip as well as an uptick in the taxes I pay to support inefficient public transportation.  When the costs of organic, local, and public get in line, then I will. Till then, I’ll keep taking advantage, always in moderation and of my own volition, of the mixed blessings that make life easier and simpler. Isn’t that the current mantra – simplify, simplify, simplify?



I think I can, I think I can, I think I can

This gallery contains 14 photos.

I have a fear of heights, maybe because I’m short, or because I come from a family built low to the ground, or from living in Houston for so long where the only hills were freeway overpasses. Height can be … Continue reading