Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My Christmas present to myself is 10 days in England. So there.

I have knitted 3 hats since I've been home. The process is exceptionally easy with a round knitting loom, and a delightful, mindless activity to keep my hands occupied.

I'd love to get into theatrical hair and make-up. Prosthetics and fake blood and bruises and wigs are just neat. Sadly I don't believe my work experience affords me much of a chance to get a job in this field without re-training. "Okay, what are your credentials?" "Well, gimme an hour and an angle grinder and I could probably make you some scissors..."

I got a little creative in the bar the other day and came up with a tasty new drink. If it already has a name I can't find it, but its an ounce of peach schnapps, two ounces of white wine (i used a chilled Pinot Grigio), two ounces of grapefruit juice, and a splash of club soda. It is very refreshing and not too sweet. I shook it and strained it into a balloon glass filled with ice. Garnish with a grapefruit slice.

Ow, I just burned my tongue on hot tea.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Sentimental Truth

Since the moment I could recognize sounds I've known and trusted the voice of radio personality Garrison Keillor. I can recall hearing A Prairie Home Companion from my baby seat, clad in my rumpled Sunday best, sucking on my fist and dozing off to the comforting drone of Minnesota's finest humorist. The words, incomprehensible to an infant's ears, meant little, but the deep, calm meter of his monologue was just the remedy for the morning's stresses of an itchy dress, a hard pew, and brimstone.

Twenty years—and a few religious crises—later I was struck by just how deep an impression those car rides had made upon me. Keillor's voice, and indeed even the opening bars of "Tishomingo Blues" to this day elicit in me such feelings of safety, of well-being and warmth, that any place I hear them instantly feels like home. Though the coziness generally dissipates after a few moments, I still find it remarkable that I've established such a deep connection with the voice of a complete stranger.

The discovery that I was hardly alone in this sentiment led me to appreciate and quietly covet the power of vocal presenters—particularly those of National Public Radio. When an undergraduate classmate jokingly mentioned that I had "one of those NPR voices" after I'd read a particularly soporific piece of prose I secretly hoped it was true, and I could find a use for it. Studies and social nights in Canterbury validated the utility of my regionally-neutral American voice, particularly in November of 2004 when it was a bit incriminating to sound Southern. My calm, trustworthy NPR voice still tends to come out when I address large groups of people—namely excitable children and sobriety-challenged adults who tend to panic around sailboats. It finds use when I answer phones for pledge drives and leave voice messages for strangers, but I've always wanted the chance to read the news, review a book, or simply declare the time of day in a broadcast. Would my desire to speak on the radio be sated by a simple "the current time is ten fifty-seven pm" announcement? Probably not, but if it was all I got I hope I would continue to relish the moment.

This is the sappy and saccharine but true reason behind why I want to study broadcast journalism. Now I have to figure out a professional, dedicated, and experienced-sounding reason to write up in 250 words and submit to the masters program alongside two references from professors or professional contacts who have actually read something I've written. (Wherein lies the greatest trouble—no one who knows me academically or professionally has ever needed me to write anything more than my name for any academic or professional purpose. Any ideas?) I may be biting off a bit more than I'm prepared to chew. Or pay for.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


I began writing this story from the comfort and warmth of a motel in southern Virginia, before it was actually over. I finished it in the comfort and warmth of my bedroom in South Carolina.

I have omitted names out of respect for people's privacy. Everyone I encountered was incredibly nice and helpful and I intend to send them Christmas cards.

The story began Sunday morning, shortly after I had exited the train which had brought me from my thanksgiving festivities in New York City back to my car in Baltimore. It was drizzly and cold but not awful and the roads were reasonable. I knew that traffic was supposed to be bad—it was the last vacation day of the Thanksgiving holiday—but from where I stood, and indeed throughout most of my trip it was tolerable and even normal. I believe I'd caught one of those weird travel pockets, where everyone else encounters a horrible ordeal—traffic, fog, driving rain—but I was whisking along at or just below the posted speed limit, pretty close to on time.

My destination was home. 450 miles or so. My vehicle contained everything I'd had in Baltimore, minus a few ruined items of clothing that had since been donated to charity or interred in a landfill. I was listening to Boy, by Roald Dahl, and was doing the automotive equivalent of mooing along with the herd. I was content.

I stopped for gas about twelve miles from the North Carolina border.

I happily printed my receipt—about $22 for 12 gallons of gas, and popped it into my center console. I figured I would eventually frame it. I eased my car back onto the street and pointed her toward the freeway—I-85 South, toward Carolina.

I rolled up to a stop at the large intersection before the interstate and waited for the left-turn light to go green. It did so in due course and I mounted the onramp. It had signs indicating you should be aware of some curvy-ness, which I acknowledged just like any other road warning. I was smoothly accelerating, and had been doing so for about four or five seconds, when I saw the curve. I think I was going about 35 miles per hour—the yellow sign recomended 25. I saw that it was a tightish curve, and tapped the brakes. As I came around it, however, I realized a bit too late that it was a tighter curve than I'd initially believed, and attempted to slow down further while turning the wheel to follow it.

This did not make my brakes very happy, apparently, and the anti-lock mechanism began to engage. This did not help matters, as it caused the wheel to jerk frightfully. I held on, and kept the wheel aligned, but the tires were already set on their trajectory—about 10 degrees from the pavement. I skidded to a stop on the embankment. It was just before 7 pm.

I didn't hear any bumps or crunches, but the hill was essesntially a soup of red mud and grasses. After ascertaining that I was okay I hopped out to see how things looked. The car looked essentially okay except for one rather important thing—when the rear tires slipped down off the road they sank instantly into about eight inches of mud, the upshot of which was that the rear bumper got caught on the asphalt and quite literally popped off.

Not wonderful, I told myself, but not the end of the world. I'll need a tow truck. I hopped back in the car and, with shaking hands, dialed AAA. The phone was answered by a kind lady who, as per company protocol, asked me if I was in a safe place. I believed I was.

That's when the shouting started.

Two middle-aged men and several of their dogs were running toward me, yelling something incomprehensible. I stepped out to see what was going on and was greeted by a small, excited hound of some persuasion. They remained incomprehensible even in close proximity, but were basically asking if I was okay. I said I was and was on the phone to get a tow truck, I'm sorry to have alarmed you. I climbed back in the car to speak to the AAA lady. The men kept shouting and one pulled open the door. He hollered for me to get out. I refused, pulled the door closed, and locked it, rather terrified of his bloodshot eyes. After a few confused moments in which the lady on the phone asked me where I was, I saw a fire department vehicle pull up, lights and sirens blaring. I unlocked the door, which set off the alarm. Christ on a bike.

After fumbling with my keys until the alarm quieted I stepped out to hear one of the men shouting, a bit more clearly, at a fire department member a few inches from him.

"we live on the hill there, we saw the car go off'n the road, we thought it was on the roof so we dialed 9-1-1." then to me, "you need to slow down there on that curve."

"Thanks. No, really."

One of the fire department members, of about 7 in the vehicle, came and asked if I was all right, said that EMS was going to pull up in a second and check me out. I expressed appreciation for their concern but was fine and really just needed a tow—I'd be able to handle it from there. As I said it, the remainder of the uniformed men slogged up the muddy hill and swarmed the car–they popped the hood and disconnected the battery so as to prevent the airbags from deploying and inspected what they could of the damage in the dark. A police car arrived.

After inquiring as to my well-being, the officer asked for my license, registration, and insurance information. I climbed back into the car and found these bits of paper and plastic and handed them to him. He walked back off to the squad car.

I lifted my phone back to my ear. The nice AAA lady was still on the phone, and asked me to ask someone where I was. I said I didn't know, and asked another police officer. "We're handling it," he replied, "now please follow the other officer back to the car." Baffled and still trying to get a tow, I continued trying to describe my location until the second officer stated, "the tow truck is already on the way. Your insurance will pay for it." Shit. Insurance.

I thanked the nice AAA lady and hung up. I approached the squad car, and the cop unlocked the door and offered me a seat. I left my feet on the road as my shoes were muddy. He was filling in what looked like a mountain of paperwork.

"How fast do you think you were going?"
"I think about 30, 35 miles an hour."
"You sure?"
"Yessir, I couldn't have gotten up much faster than that. I'd been stopped at the red light just a few yards back."

"So what happened?"
"That curve—i just didn't realize it was as tight as it was. I turned too late, my brakes locked up, and I was off the road. It wouldn't be so bad except for the mud."

I looked through the windshield and saw a tow truck operator hooking a line to my rear axle. The fire department members, now a dozen or so, were standing around looking bored.

The police officer got my attention again.

"I'm writing you a ticket for reckless driving."
"What? Reckless? I just said-"
"You lost control of the vehicle. Legally, that's reckless driving."
"But sir, I wasn't going that fast, I just wasn't aware of the shape of the road. I'm not from here."
"I know, I know. And I suggest you take that up in court. Seriously."
"I'm sorry?"
"I'm legally obligated to write you a ticket for this, but I think you need to contest it in court. I'm setting you a court date for January 20th."
"Sir, I'm sorry, but this just isn't right. All I need is a tow."
"If there's more than $1,ooo worth of damage I'm required to write a ticket."

I glanced back at my bumper, fully intact and popped back, delicately, into place by the tow truck's cable.

"You think that's a thousand dollars worth of damage?"

He showed me where to sign and informed me that he would not tick the box indicating I could pay the ticket by mail. My signature affixed, he handed me the large ticket, my registration, license, and insurance card. I climbed out of the car, slightly dazed and beginning to grow angry, and began to wander toward the car and all of my posessions.

The car was nearly in position to be hauled up. As it returned to the road I watched the rear left tire squish oddly off the wheel where it hit the asphalt ridge. Well shit.

I stepped back and found myself surrounded by firemen. They were chatting amongst themselves, and I overheard the line, "well, its not as bad as the one this morning."

"What was that?"
"we pulled another car off this spot this morning. Right here. You're prob'ly the fourth, fifth person we've pulled off here this month. This curve is treacherous."
"Whoa. Well, that makes me feel a little better."
"Yeah, people come down the onramp thinkin' they're going okay, then wham, they get spun off."
"I didn't think I was going too fast..."

A fireman glanced into the car and saw my handbag in the passenger seat, my colorful wallet peeking out of it. "Want your pocketbook? Or anything else out of the car?" Pocketbook. I'm really out in the sticks. He handed it to me. I later hoped that I'd thanked him.

I called my mom. I believe it was the second time I'd called her and begun with, "Hi mom. I'm okay, but..." The car was pulled fully onto the tow truck and I began to look at the damage. Tire, bumper, mud. Was that really it? All this for what could easily be handled with duct tape?

I heard myself swearing and choking up. Great, you're in front of dozens of people who you've just told you're a rational and sane person to have on the road. I dimly heard mom encouraging me to relax and get a hold of myself. Seeds of doubt and fear began tracing across my mind. Were you speeding? Did you jerk the wheel? Did these people put this here as a trap? Does this town depend on car accidents? Are they evil? Are they aliens? The reds, yellows, and blues of emergency vehicle lights were growing misty and confused in my eyes, like a dirty kaleidoscope. I realized my hands were shaking and dimly registered that I might have dropped something.

The tow truck driver was trying to subtly get my attention. He opened the passenger door of the cab and I clambered awkwardly in. My shaking hand fumbled to close the door around the odd parcel of paperwork it still contained.

The driver looked to be in his mid sixties, large and strong. My mouth fired off, babbling thanks for his help and a variety pack of other asinine information as he smoothly completed a three-point turn and started off back up the onramp. I was a bit surprised that we weren't going out and around until I glanced up and saw three fire trucks, punctuated by lines of road flares, blocking the entryway.

"Sheez. I had no idea this was such a big deal. These folks work Fast."
"This happens often enough that we got a routine set up. They had plenty of practice this morning."
"I'd heard about that. Was that one as bad as this?"
"Yours ain't bad."
"I'm sorry it caused such a fuss—seems like every fire department in the county answered."
"Don't worry about it. Not much else goes on around here. Everybody wants to get involved."

Feeling a bit like Arlo Gutherie I fell quiet.

In a matter of seconds we were pulling into a Citgo station full of cars and tow trucks. I hopped out and followed him into the store, where two men and two women, one of which looked near my age, were chatting. He handed me a business card and disappeared into the garage, where two cars hovered overhead on hydraulic lifts. A forty-something man with sandy hair and a goatee grinned at me.

"Here she is! How's the car?"
"I broke it."

Everyone laughed and smiled in a pitying sort of way, and I heard several renditions of "they need to do something about that curve–you're the second one today" while the girl behind the counter asked me where I was from and if I'd need a place to stay. After everyone expressed their sympathy for my distance from home, she called her friend over at the Comfort Inn. Calmed and somewhat less confused, a message arrived from the accounting branch of my brain. License. We've lost track of the license. Eyes and hands–look for it. I obeyed. It was gone. The goatee'd man was orating.

"You know, I think they could save a lot by paving over where that gravel is—y'know, putting yellow lines on it to show that it ain't road, but if people skid off they can get back on. 'Cos you and that guy this mornin', you coulda just got back going if the gravel weren't all wet and gouged out. Folks run off an they come back in and smooth out the gravel, but five, ten people skid off there a day without gettin' hurt and gouge out a hole. Then it rains and all that turns into mud. Till you come along and skid into it and what with the mud an the hole you fall in an get stuck."

"Well you know the state ain't gonna do nothin about it until somebody gets real hurt and sues. Till then they'll just blame the drivers and hand out reckless drivin tickets. Did you get one?"

"I did. I was pretty surprised." I showed the girl the ticket and she nodded. "I think I dropped my license."

"Did the cop hand it back to you?"
"Yeah, I must have dropped it in the mud."
"Well who was the ticketing officer? Maybe you dropped it in the car."
"Er...C. S."
"I'll give him a call."

She picked up her cell phone and hit a button on speed dial. "Hey darlin, could you have a look around in your car... yes she said you handed it back to her but she dropped it... no she's got everything else... call me if it turns up. I'll talk to you later."

Paranoia flared again. Are these nice people in cahoots with the cops? What kind of a set-up is this?

"You all gotten to know the police force?"
"Aw of course. My husband's a state trooper. C.S. is a good guy—the sheriff's real tough on 'em. I intend to give him a piece of my mind about sayin you were drivin reckless over there, though–he knows how bad it is, 'specially if you ain't from around here."

After a few more moments of shuffling in which I returned to the tow truck and searched around my seat i found myself getting back into it with the friendly goatee'd man and taking a quick ride over to the Comfort Inn. He lowered the ramp in the parking lot so i could get my passport out of a notebook in a large suitcase in the back. I dragged it inside and was met with the tastefully decorated lobby of a business-class motel and an attractive lady in what I guessed was her late 60's from her whitening, smoothly tucked-up hair. She smiled at me from across the high check-in counter.

"So here's the girl of the hour."

She began typing and looking for a room for me. I asked if they offered a AAA discount and she looked at me over her glasses. "I'm giving you every discount I can find." I wanted to hug her. She placed me in a downstairs room with two queen beds for $40 a night. I discovered later that this was just about half their going rate. I signed the check-in agreement and she asked me to call her when I got settled.

With my driver's help I offloaded about half of my worldly possessions into my large, clean room. I attempted to tip him and he backed away quickly. I hoped I hadn't insulted him. Inside, door triple-locked, I settled in to call my insurance company and parents. My first call to the insurance company ended suddenly—I heard crackling and shuffling akin to someone else in the same house picking up the phone which the agent did not hear. I asked if perhaps her quality assurance monitor was messed up and the connection was instantly severed. I tried again. This call was successful and, after providing her with as much information as she required and reminding her I was stranded far from home, a different agent assured me that someone would call me first thing in the morning. It was 8:30pm.

I placed the call to the front desk on the motel phone and the same thing happened. Shuffle shuffle click. I tried again, weirded out, and informed the desk lady that I'd gotten in and settled, thank you so much. She reminded me to lock my doors and get some rest.

I called my mom and told her I thought my phones had been bugged. She told me I was exhausted. As she's a healthcare professional and tends to be right about these things I believed her.

I set my alarm for 8 am and crawled into bed. It was 10pm.

After about fifteen minutes of sleep I was jerked awake by clock radio honky-tonk and continued the pointless stream of arguments I'd been mulling over all night. I called the insurance company again and was given the name and number of my case's assigned agent. The agent wouldn't reach his desk until 11:30am. Check-out was at 11 so I went back to the hotel desk and the same nice lady gave me the same nice price for the same nice room for another night. We chatted a bit and watched Law and Order on the big lobby television while I waited to make my phone call. She had been an upwardly-mobile actress in the Village back in her day, but she got married and didn't want to raise her family in the City. She tried to continue acting in regional theatre in upstate New York but was prevented by her race. She did some dancing and modeling for some Black-community pageants but grew disgruntled quickly with the prejudice that prevented her from pursuing her dreams.

I called the insurance guy again. No answer. I left a message. To pass the time I wandered over to the tow company's garage—it was visible from the hotel—bought a soda and settled in to chat with the folks who ran it. They were mostly family and the man who'd collected the car was the patriarch and owner. A number of family members and regulars wandered in and out to pass the time—one of which was a retired cop. He'd heard about me already and recounted with amusement that back in the day he sat at the end of that onramp to catch speeders on the freeway. This was really convenient as every time someone wiped out on that curve he'd just have to back up to help them out.

Every half-hour or so I called the insurance agent, but he never answered, and his voice mailbox was full after my first message. I dialed the call center and suggested that perhaps my agent wasn't in today and if so could I get someone else on my case so I could get things moving oh did I happen to mention I'm Stranded here have a nice day. They connected me to another voice mailbox with a message that clearly announced that its owner would not be in today. I called again, recounted the story so far in four part harmony and requested that something useful happen soon.

My agent called me. He was sick and had just gotten to work after he'd called in to say he couldn't make it and his boss said he had to. He sounded like he was running on Day-Quil. I felt like an ass for hating him up until this point. He was just a liability adjuster and, once he confirmed I was the only person involved, put my claim in to be handled by someone local. He got in touch with the garage and asked if a little bit of work—a tire and a mud clearing—could get her running well enough that i could get home. Someone noticed something a bit off about the front end and said they didn't think so, it needed to go to a body shop. The agent called a rental company and asked if it was possible for me to get a car after having misplaced my license. Her "no" response was so quick that he didn't press the issue. Not particularly helpful on any front, the agent said a claims adjuster would come out to evaluate the car and get things moving by the end of the day.

I used the hotel computer to hop online and entertain myself in between calls to keep myself occupied. A friend informed me that I was the sixth person he knew who had run off the road in the past two days. I told him he'd jinxed all of us. As the end of the day rolled around and my constant calls and messages led to a steaming heap of diddly-squat on the claims adjustment front I returned to the garage to ask if anyone had seen my license. The owner drove me over to the onramp and I slogged fruitlessly through the mud for a while. Upon our return to the garage his granddaughter, a pretty high school-aged girl who'd once played softball in my hometown, drove me up to where my car was stored and helped me dig through it. Again unsuccessful, I retrieved my laptop from the heaps of baggage and returned to the motel in the dark. I called my other half on Google Talk and allowed his soothing voice to quell much of my frustration. As soon as he dozed off it all came back, but it was a welcome respite.

Again, bed around 10. Fifteen minutes of sleep just before 8. More phone calls. Even less accomplished.

I puttered around between the hotel and the garage, making more friends. Tuesday's shop attendant was a soft-spoken woman of indeterminate age, probably around 40, who kept me entertained with conversation for several hours. I would periodically step outside to bug the insurance company and she would comment on how they were probably giving me the run-around in hopes that I'd get annoyed and cancel my service so they could fine me for breaking contract and not pay a dime toward repairs. Later, when my mom called to give me an update on her progress toward picking me up, she mentioned that she was surprised I didn't urge her to hurry and "get me away from this scary Stephen King novel." I really liked her.

An elderly, toothless man came and went periodically through the shop, occasionally making remarks to the attendant in a barely-audible wheeze. He told a number of racist jokes and got annoyed when I didn't laugh. They weren't funny. One in particular sounded like a threat. I didn't like him.

After a while it occurred to me that I hadn't eaten in about three days and the attendant pointed me toward the buffet restaurant next door. Named the "Down Home Country Restaurant" the buffet offered fried okra, green beans, kung pao chicken, lychees, sweet potato casserole, egg drop soup, peach cobbler, oysters on the half shell, stuffed portobello caps, crab ragoons, and about seventy other dishes, most of which contained meat. After sating myself on every vegetable in the place and consuming a cream puff I paid my $5.50 and returned to the garage, giggling maniacally.

After a while my mom arrived and thanked everyone she could find for being so nice and helpful while I was stuck here. We loaded up everything I owned, which took some pressure off of my car's flat tire, thanked a few more people, and crept back onto the dreaded onramp at about eight miles an hour. When the ramp straightened out mom relaxed, we sped up, and the car hurried up toward home.

The insurance adjuster finally called yesterday afternoon and said she'd get my car towed to a garage that was part of the company. I'll still have to go up and collect it when its ready—a 7-hour bus ride. This is assuming that the finance department actually pays out–they've been searching for loopholes since I filed the claim. Then in January it looks like I have a date in court. I'll let you know how that goes. The obnoxious part is the cop was right—even though the damage to the car is not extensive, the sheer cost of towing, driven up by insurance companies, and storage, driven up by insurance companies, compounded with my insurance company's refusal to do anything for four days, will easily put the cost of this whole incident over a thousand dollars.

This event has provided me with a valuable life lesson: I'm ready to move to England.