Monday, December 30, 2002
Friday, November 15, 2002
Last year I bought a truck and, after putting over twenty thousand miles on it in less than a year, it needed new brakes. So I took the advice that I had never before followed -- I went to the dealership. I made a reservation for first thing Friday morning for a brake job, oil change and tire rotation. On arrival I stated my name and purpose ("Shan P - I have a reservation for a 5k service and brake job."). The service advisor, Ruben, replied, "We'll tell you if you need a brake job or not." I told him that I definitely needed brakes because that they were making a lot of noise and that it had gotten worse since a recent trip to Mt. Baldy. He sent me on my way and told me he'd call when it was done.
About three hours later he called to say that my 5k service was done, that I didn't need brakes, and that my transmission needed to be serviced. I authorized the new service and asked if they'd driven my truck. I was told that they'd driven and inspected it. Ruben said that I had a lot of room left on the pads and that I could expect them to last at least another ten thousand miles. I started wondering if I was nuts or it was yet another case of a woman's car behaving well in the presence of a mechanic.
I drove and braked silently away from the dealership and went to run some errands. On the way home the grinding started up again. I made a mental note to grow a penis before heading back to the dealership. Since no penis was pressing outward from my nether region I pondered other options, including a strongly worded letter of complaint or just finding a good mechanic through my friends and never going back to the dealership. In the meantime I had my dad take a listen and then a look (I should mention that he has more years of professional experience with cars than I have experience breathing -- and that he is the director of a truck racing organization). Without removing my wheel he was able to determine that I needed a new brake shoe. His suggestion was that I call the dealership and "offer to sue." Instead I called the dealership with that most female question, "But how did it happen?"
I spoke with the service manager, Mike, who came up with several really interesting possibilities, but not until after he defended his mechanic over and over again.
"I stand behind the work of my mechanics. They do an excellent job and if I didn't believe that, they wouldn't be working for me."
"But how could they say I don't need brakes if they actually drove my truck like Ruben said? If they'd driven it, they couldn't have missed the horrible grinding noise it makes."
"My guy didn't just drive your vehicle, he took apart your brake, inspected it and measured the parts to within 1/32 of an inch. On your invoice you'll see where it gives those measurements. To within 1/32 of an inch."
"Where would I find that? Would that be after the notes to inspect the brakes?"
"Yes. Exactly." (This sounded like a man talking through gritted teeth.)
"On mine it says 'Check and fill fluids!' There are no measurements." (This sounded like me when I'm right and you're wrong.)
I was then placed on hold while my invoice was retrieved for a conversation more specific to my vehicle. When Mike returned he began reading off numbers and measurements that were not on my copy of the invoice.
"Those numbers mean nothing to me; they aren't on my invoice. How can you have these numbers from my invoice when they're not on my invoice and how can your men have driven and inspected my vehicle and not noticed that I needed brakes?"
"Let me tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you a free brake inspection and we'll send your truck to our brake specialist. I'm confident that we're not going to find anything, but if that'll make you feel better I'll cover it."
"That's really great, but I already brought my truck to you and specifically requested that my brakes be done because of the horrible noise they were making and what I want to know is why it didn't go to a brake specialist the first time?"
"Everybody's brakes make noise from time to time. That doesn't mean anything."
"Oh, that must be why I have been hearing all that squeaking and grinding from the cars around me. No, wait -- just mine are doing that."
"Everybody complains about their brakes making noise. That's like saying the sky is blue."
"It's a very common complaint."
"I'm not imagining that my brakes are making noise. They're grinding, not squeaking. Plus, I had it looked at and was told that I need brake shoes, but according to your guy I could drive it around for another six months."
"Who looked at it?"
"My father, a mechanic."
"Oh. Well, perhaps in driving down from Mt. Baldy your brakes got heated and became off-round."
"Huh?" (An explanation followed, but my dad later dismissed it as horseshit, so I didn't bother remembering for this story. Sorry.) "That still doesn't explain how this happened."
"Let me tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to have your brakes looked at, and if there's any work that needs to be done, I'll cover it. I'll take care of one axle for you. If both need to be done, I'll cover half of that."
On one hand, yes, my head began to swell with power, but on the other, I still didn't have the answer to my question. Also, note that it took the mention of my father to get any real help from this guy. On the way home I called my dad to update him. He asked me to bring it to his place so he could mark the old parts to ensure that the repairs actually happened. When he took it apart, there was no pad left. Parts had been ground down so far that metal shavings fell out all over the place and still filled the bottom of this cup-shaped part. I dutifully retrieved Dad's digital camera with the telephoto lens and helped snap about six shots before he put it back together. Then I called the dealership and arranged for them to get me a tow truck -- it was not safe to drive. The next morning I got a call from Ruben who told me I'd have to call for the tow truck myself and that they would only pay for it if the vehicle really was unsafe to drive. I don't know if these attempts of his to negate my information made him feel powerful, but if so, it couldn't have lasted long.
When the tow truck driver pulled my vehicle up onto his flatbed he remarked about how bad the brakes sounded. I explained the situation to him on the way to the dealership. When he pulled it off the tow truck at the dealership, he insisted on driving it in because he was a "professional driver" and my truck was "obviously unsafe." Ruben walked up and I handed him the brake pad and smilingly relayed my dad's message, "My dad said I should throw this at you and demand an explanation, but I'm just going to hand it to you." I asked the tow truck driver if he needed my signature on anything until they determined who'd be paying, but he shook his head and said, "Oh, they're paying for this," and went to Ruben for billing info.
I told Ruben that I needed to get to work, but that I wasn't leaving until I found out what was going on, so he put a rush on my order. About half an hour later I was called into Mike's office along with Ruben. Mike sat me down, seated himself in front of me and said, "Well, I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know. You need brakes." He then detailed the exact nature of the repairs needed, including something with the rear axle that they had missed and that he'd also cover. I was given a rental car for the day and Mike's "deep and humble" apology. He also requested that I express his apologies to my father for the inconvenience he'd been caused.
While waiting for the rental car I considered what had just transpired. Rather than feeling really cool about having handled this essentially on my own (no guy came along with me or called for me), I was struck by two things.
1) That prick was so patronizing that he wouldn't help me until I mentioned my father. The fact that he wanted to apologize for inconveniencing my father said a lot considering how willing he was to endanger my life, my son's life and the lives of those on the road near me, and
2) For him to have paid for what ended up being about $300 worth of repairs plus a rental car means that we really were in danger.
When I got home that night, some unfortunate schlub had the misfortune to call me from the dealership's "customer care center" to inquire about my satisfaction with the service I'd received.
In the end, everybody was stripped of power: Ruben, Mike, the mechanic, and me. Sure, I had gotten the brake job for free, but I would have rather paid for it and not had the nausea that stuck with me that day.
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
My boyfriend, son and I recently decided to enjoy a trail hike at Mt. Baldy that has been recommended by a few of my friends. One couple, Tami and Jeff, even did what they called "extreme hiking" -- that is, they went up as quickly as they could and raced down. Now, I already knew that they were nuts and that pushing themselves physically had become something of a goal, rather than the byproduct of a hobby. Still, Tami has a knack for drawing others into her manias and somehow making them like what they're doing. This is how I ended up with various pieces of body art and is also the main reason I ran a marathon.
One blazing hot Sunday afternoon, Tom, Corey and I headed up to Mt. Baldy for a hike. We were heading for the Ice House Canyon trail, which is a shady dirt path that slopes gently in most places. The three of us had been hiking together before, and Corey and I had been up there quite a few times over the years. Corey brought walking sticks, a butterfly net and the carrier his fire belly frog came home in. As we approached the short turnoff for the Ice House, Tom and I decided to head up to the trail our friends had recommended. We didn't find out until later that it was called the Devil's Backbone.
We parked and headed to the bottom of the ski lifts, where the trail begins. A group of sweaty men were laughing and having a really good time -- they had just come down. I thought about how much fun they were having. I thought about the fun we could have on our hike. I thought about the fact that my thighs were already feeling the effects of the slanted road.
At the ski lifts we had to make a decision: Ride or hike? Anybody who knows me well knows I'm terrified of heights, especially if my feet are not set on terra firma or something attached to it. I love beautiful views overlooking valleys and cities, I just want to be on the side of a hill or in a tall building to see them. Add to that the fact that Tom and I hadn't brought much money and our decision was made: Hike.
So we started up the mountainside by staying underneath the ski lift. The conditions were less than ideal, but we wanted a workout as much as time spent with nature. Sure it was rocky, but big rocks were usually pushed into the earth far enough that we could propel ourselves forward. No, it wasn't the gently sloping shaded hike we had expected, but the most important thing was that we were out and we were moving.
After about twenty minutes I started getting out of breath. Thankfully, we'd all brought water to drink. Tom agreed to carry mine in addition to his, probably to stem the heavy breathing and grunting I'd been doing. Newly freed of the 32 ounces of water, I scrambled up the side of the mountain quickly, leaving Tom and Corey to stare in amazement from far below.
Hmm, it occurs to me that Tom may actually read this, so I'll try to stick to the facts.
I slowly made my way to a large rock and sat down to survey our progress. Tom and Corey came back down to me and we had a small snack of water and granola bars. We looked down the hill and tried to estimate how far we'd gone. I guessed 100 feet, but Tom thought at least 100 yards. In any case, we could clearly see the ski lift shack and, beyond that, the parking lot with our truck. Overhead people who had the sense and the funds to ride in reasonable comfort waved or said hello. They couldn't believe we were walking up. One guy, whose dirt bike was on the lift behind him, pulled out a gallon jug of water and poured it on our heads. We were grateful for his generosity and good aim. We hoped for more people like him along the way. Energized, we turned back toward the trail.
Then we looked up.
Looking up is always bad. When I have run up long hills without looking, it may have been hard, but it happened reasonably quickly. If I looked up at any point before the summit (yep, even from mere feet away), I felt discouraged and wanted to walk. It was no different with hiking. I looked skeptically toward the top of the hill and announced that I didn't have it in me to complete this particular trail today. In my head I was calculating the precise distance that would save me from looking like a wimp without straining my weak muscles.
Taking the two or three minute break was good for me and I was able to briefly move ahead of Corey and Tom. Of course they passed me by pretty quickly, but I was on my way. The terrain changed from a rock-filled sandy path to one covered in tiny shale rocks. We were trying to walk up a dusty gravel hill in ninety degree weather. Even the few big rocks were not pressed into the ground and did not offer traction or a suitable place to stand and catch one's breath. Trying to stand still meant sliding down hill backwards. Up ahead I spied a tree root that was protruding from the ground. My goal of reaching the tree was slowly realized.
Another short break (that left a permanent thumbprint of sap right on my rear end), another glimpse to the base of the hill and toward the top of the trail, another bout of self-doubt and we were on our way. Corey had found a long stick to aid his hiking. He offered it to me, but I couldn't justify taking on the extra weight since Tom was still carrying my water bottle. Corey offered it to Tom, who looked offended that someone might think he'd need a walking stick.
Around this time we had a choice of paths. One was steep, narrow and made of the loose gravel. The other was less steep and appeared to have more dirt than shale. I chose the steep shale path simply because I already knew what to expect there. Tom and Corey took the path that turned out to be shale over loose sand. Moments later Corey was climbing up to the trail I was using. Tom, however, was determined to use his route despite the obviously tough time he was having. When I looked over and saw him successfully using a walking stick that was about eighteen inches long (his trail was a lot steeper than we had realized), I was struck by two things: His amazing will to stick to something even if it's difficult; and that he could be a freaky new character in Heidi. I pictured him climbing the Alps in lederhosen and the hat with the feather. I would have laughed, but I didn't have that sort of energy.
After about ninety minutes of hiking that really looked like a Sumo wrestler's intimidating walk into the ring, we reached a short, but very steep hill -- the sort of hill that you just have to mount in order to maintain a shred of self-respect. When I reached the top I looked down, the parking lot was no longer visible, but the mountain valley below was, and it was stunning. Dark green trees, light blue skies, a few small white clouds in the distance.
Then I looked over to the right and saw -- to my utter dismay -- a dirt road, wide enough for two small vehicles to pass one another. My jaw dropped so hard my eyes watered. A sprightly, stout older man was marching quickly down. This road, I later found out, was the 'trail' my friends had raced up and run down. Having the road as an option made me want to finish the course we'd started. By this time, there was no more trail, there was just a Little House on the Prairie type hill that had a mix of pre-tumble weed bushes, wildflowers, and more of the shale and sand. This last rise was only about one hundred feet away, but rose up approximately sixty or seventy vertical feet, so it was pretty steep.
While Tom and I rested before the final push, Corey (who had alternately complained about being tired and then raced off ahead of us) found an almost vertical wall of dirt. He backed up, ran up as far as he could, slid a little, climbed a little, slipped some, and climbed some more. We all had goals that day, and his was to get as far up that dirt wall as possible. We watched him for a few minutes while wondering if he had somehow managed to take the road while we struggled up the gravel pit. A few minutes later, Tom and I were ready to move on.
I admit that I took advantage of some of those pretty plants on the hill. I stepped on them, hoping their roots went deep enough to hold them and allow me some traction to move upward. Tom was the first person to get to the top, followed a few minutes later by me. Corey took the longest time because he'd found a length of rope and a block of cement with metal rods protruding (about five feet below the top of the hill). Trash, you say, but to Corey it was his only opportunity that day to be a rock climber. He first tried to tie the rope to the rods or the cement, but had no luck. In the end, Tom offered to hold an end of the rope and let Corey pull himself up that way.
We went into the lodge, split a soda and debated whether to hike or to ride down. Initially, I didn't care which we did, as long as we got on our way. It was already 4:00, and the lifts were closing in half an hour. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to hike. Or take that road that (I found out later) my friends had traveled. Or wait until some new, non-ski lift sort of way was invented to get down the mountain. I'd ridden both up and down them once before and had no interest in doing it again, especially not down, as that meant looking down -- down to the ground, down into the valley that had once seemed so beautiful.
I was outvoted.
We headed over to the ski lifts (when you're going down, does it become a ski drop?) and Tom got onto his. Corey was very disappointed that he was going with me instead of Tom, but that would have meant that I'd be alone, and probably in a chair that was lopsided from just one person, so I'd be drooping, sagging toward the ground. That could not be.
Although I didn't want to, I told the attendant that I was afraid. He looked at me like I was an idiot and told me where to stand. I stood bouncing with knees bent and rear end pointing out in anticipation of the chair. I probably looked like Goofy getting ready to ski, but the hyuk-hyuk's came from the attendant.
For the first thirty seconds of the ride, I obsessed over how far forward Corey was sitting, and then I spent some time worrying about his being too far back in the seat. After that, I tried to be cool. I called to Tom, who turned around and waved at us. I wiggled the three fingers on my right hand that would be pried from the chair lift pole. Most of the way down, Corey and I enjoyed the view. Then Corey noticed the way the chair bounced as we went past a lift tower. He wanted to know if the chair could fall off. He wanted to know if we were going to hit that rock below. If we were going to crash on the other side of that cliff. How much longer it would be until it was over. Sometimes I think my son reads my mind.
When we reached the bottom and exited safely, the second attendant told Corey to come back in the winter and he'd teach Corey to snowboard. From the look in Corey's eyes, he will be waiting for first snow to have that man keep his word. My only hope is that he suffers selective amnesia when winter hits.
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
My office offers a variety of tests, one of them being the GED. I know Chris Rock said it's the "Good Enough Diploma," but proving basic academic skill is a goal many people didn't achieve while in school, and a second chance often provides a stepping stone to a better life. We see people marked with tattoos indicating gang affiliations and those who have spent their children's entire lives on welfare; homeschooled kids come in to prove mastery of high school fundamentals so they are eligible to enroll in college. Many put themselves on trial to get that job or that promotion that has been thus far unattainable. The pressure placed upon these people -- either because they waited too long before looking into the test or out of sheer fear of failure -- may be the cause of some pretty strange behavior, but I'm not convinced. Most of our examinees come in, take the test (and retest, if necessary) without raising our eyebrows. When something does happen, we mentally place that person in the "Automatic Fail" file. We have no means nor desire to alter anybody's score, but the collective will watch to see how he or she did.
What does it take to get our attention? Sometimes a phone call made well in advance of the test date will get it started. Yesterday I got three calls from a man who wanted information about the GED. Each time, he acted as if he had never called before. Five seconds into the third call he asked me to hold on while he passed the phone to his wife. She wanted to know where to submit her payment. The conversation went like this (with alterations to the name of my office and organization):
"You're going to make the money order out to SBGED."
"S... B... G... E... D"
"Oh! Okay. SG..."
"San Bernardino Good Enough Diploma."
"No, S, B. As in San Bernardino."
"Oh, hahaha. SBGED."
"Yes, you're going to send your payment to the XYZ Assessment Center." I paused for several seconds, waiting to hear her repeating the last few syllables of the name or for an "Okay" to signal that she'd finished writing, but there was just silence, so I continued. "The address is (pause) 123 East Main Street (long pause) San Bernardino (pause) California (pause) 92401."
Just before I was going to ask if the caller was still on the line, I heard, "Mm-hmm. Okay. XYZ what?"
I prayed to the high heavens for patience and the voice of a Stepford wife while I went through the address again. Once she had it on paper, she said, "Okay, just to clarify -- what is the number I've called?"
"This is the X... Y... Z... Assessment... Center."
"Mm-hmm, and what's the phone number?"
Uh... the one you dialed?
When I first started answering phones at work, I was surprised by how many calls were like the one above. Fortunately, most of them are shorter and less repetitive, like the conversation I had on Friday with a girl whose adult school would accept a passing GED math score in place of class credits. Here's what she had to say:
"I just need to know how much it will be to take the math test. My school will give me credit if I pass."
"There's a $20 registration and certificate fee and the math test is $9."
"That's it? Oh, that's such a blessing. I really thought it would be a lot more. Now, how much is that total?"
Perhaps she should just stick with the classes.
Monday, September 23, 2002
One day at work I got a really nervous call from Laura, one of my best friends and the person with whom I had entrusted the care of my "highly active" six year old son. The hesitancy in her voice caused my palms to break out in a sweat as I tried to guess what my little darling might have done this time. Laura sensed my tension, laughed and told me, "It's nothing bad." I could see her grinning on the other end of the phone and my curiosity skyrocketed.
She asked if I had ever noticed her neighbor, because he had apparently noticed me the evening before when I picked up my son. He wanted to know who I was and if I was a cop. I found this a little odd, but I was wearing dark blue pants with my hair up -- and reeling from a horribly star-crossed romance -- so I shrugged it off and got all tingly, wondering about the point of this call. It took hardly a second more before she blurted it all out. He thought I was attractive and wanted to know if I might want to go on a date.
I, too, had noticed him the night before, but only in the most cursory way. While walking to Laura's door, I smiled politely as I passed a man. The only firm detail I could pull out of my memory was that his lower jaw went up so much that I wondered whether or not he had all his teeth. That and the fact that his name was Don was enough for me to say no.
Okay, so your name is Don and you're a nice, normal guy; or you know a Don who's just wonderful, and you can't understand why I'd be opposed to dating this Don. I admit it: I'm shallow; the name Don reminds me of this bespectacled, buzz-headed, scrawny boy I knew in first grade who seemed to be incessantly picking his nose or eating pudding from those little metal cups with the pop-top lids.
Laura wasn't insistent, but she was quite a proponent of this guy. I can't recall how many times she said he was really nice. Her kids liked to play at or near his place because he was always friendly. That he was a single custodial parent of a sweet little boy was only further testament to his upstanding nature. Plus, Laura was pretty sure he had teeth. Still, the four years since my experience with Cemetery Man hadn't dulled my repugnance for blind dates.
My dear friend Laura, with whom I share mutual trust in judgment despite the crazy things we've done together, or maybe because of them, appealed to me to meet Don before making my decision. She pointed out how much courage it had taken him to even broach the subject and I was flattered. We talked about the fact that I really wanted to start dating again and I thought of my recently acquired piece of body art. Wasn't I the kind of woman who did crazy things like getting tattooed, not once, but twice (and eventually a third time)? What could it hurt to spend a few hours with some guy who was so nervous about asking me out that he went to my friend first? If he tried to take me to the cemetery for any reason, I'd be out of there quicker than you could say "eighty-nine cent carnation."
So I'd meet this guy -- this Don -- and maybe even go out with him. Why the hell not? Honestly, I began to feel a little like a fairy princess who would tap her magic wand on the shoulder of the kneeling knave and let him know that he was worthy of her time. Yeah, my head was so huge that it threatened planes soaring above.
Laura suggested that the introductions take place that evening when I picked up Corey. "Just dive on in!" I thought to myself. I straightened up a little before leaving work and hoped that the combination of heat outside and the pleather seats in my car wouldn't conspire to give me a sweaty butt before I got to Laura's. Not to worry, it was late March and the weather was pleasant. I arrived looking a lot cooler than I felt, parked as close to Laura's as possible, and practically ran in.
All the kids were banished outside to play, but Laura's husband Scott was there at the dining table making fun of Don, and of us for getting all worked up over him. Although Laura had seen Don hanging out in the garage with Scott, he apparently came unbidden and was full of improbable and often incomprehensible stories. When Laura said she had talked to Don a couple of times that afternoon and still couldn't be sure he had teeth, fuel was heaped onto Scott's flaming humor. I reminded myself that I didn't have to go out with him at all if I didn't want to. It was hard not to laugh with Scott, but I was afraid that if I started I wouldn't be able to stop when the big moment came. Inappropriate laughter has been a hallmark of my life.
An instant later there was a knock at the door.
Scott found not-so-subtle ways of making his feelings known. Don didn't appear to notice, but I was struck by how difficult it must be for guys. Certainly I had never been brave enough to do what he was doing. My swelled ego deflated and I was touched by his efforts on my behalf. How could I possibly say no? Laura helped Don get through his request and we agreed to go out to dinner on Saturday evening. Phone numbers were exchanged so we could choose a place to meet -- no matter how shy or sweet or nervous he seemed, I was taking my own car.
Early Saturday afternoon I went out and bought a pair of black jeans and a pink sweater for the occasion. I was a little nervous about the sweater because it revealed a small part of my tattoo if I moved certain ways. It was still such a new part of the formerly conservative me and I wasn't quite sure what Don would think, so I tried to keep it covered.
We met at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Rancho Cucamonga. Don no longer looked like an oversize little boy. He was wearing a plaid shirt and his hair was now plastered straight back. He was fairly attractive, but was clearly older than me. While waiting for our dinner, Don asked about my interests and I asked about his. We talked about sports. He liked football; I liked all the girlie sports, plus running. He mentioned car racing, so I told him that my dad was racing Legends cars. Don didn't know about those, but he did bring up a race he'd seen in 1979. My curiosity could be held back no longer, so I asked his age.
"I was afraid this would come up."
"Why? What is there to be afraid of?"
"I just knew this was going to come up."
"How old do you think I am?"
"I have no idea, that's why I asked."
"Forty. Does that scare you?"
"Does that scare you?"
"Does that scare you?"
"No. Why would that scare me?" (Especially since I'm never going to see you again.)
"But does it scare you?"
"What scares me is that you keep asking me the same question, even though I've answered you three times. Don't keep asking me that."
"Okay. Does it (long pause) frighten you?"
"That's the same question! I refuse to answer. You can't make me." (Yes, I, too, could be an eight year old.)
When the server came, Don ordered for both of us. Our waitress must have seen a million bad dates before because she recognized this one instantly. I got sympathetic looks from her and another server periodically throughout the evening. Dinner went quickly and without much trouble, but I did come to realize that Don had interesting habit of leaving off parts of words and making connections that did not seem to fit together. It's hard to explain, but reminded me of a student I had worked with who had suffered TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Dinner came with dessert, but I declined. I wasn't interested in vanilla ice cream and have never cared for spumoni. Don's pronunciation made it all the less appetizing. He kept trying to get the waitress to bring me the spewmoni that came with my meal. The poor woman ended up bringing it, but set it next to Don, not me.
On the way out, Don snagged two children's menu packs as "a gift for your son." He seemed quite surprised that the date ended at the door of the restaurant and even outraged that I wasn't interested in setting up another date. Apparently he realized that railing at someone for not wanting to go out with you again is not likely to produce the desired second date, because he calmed down suddenly. As we were walking toward the parking lot, Don said he'd wait to hear from me. I turned to thank him, but he was already stalking off to his car.
About two hours after I returned home, Don called, trying to set up a second date. A few more calls and he finally believed that I wasn't interested. He remained bitter for at least the next 18 months or so that Laura was his neighbor. The last time I saw him was on a Fourth of July party at Laura's, when I put up with a lot of comments that one would expect from an overgrown child or a man with a damaged frontal lobe.
Wednesday, September 18, 2002
Feature this: I'm about 23 or 24 years old, going through a divorce, and living back at home with my mother. Since my return, I've made friends with a woman whose son is only a few weeks older than mine. My new friend's name is Jody and Jody enjoys the dating world; but since she's married, dating must occur vicariously through friends and acquaintances. Thus, I am bombarded with invitations to meet this person or that person.
I decline the first prospective date simply on the basis that blind dates are necessarily bad. This doesn't dissuade Jody from trying to match me up, and one evening after work I get a phone call from her with another man in the lineup. She stresses to me that this is a guy who just wants to make friends with someone he can take out once in a while; he doesn't want a serious relationship.
I'm far from naive, but shock from the dissolution of my marriage has led me to long for the old days, when people didn't have a dark private face to contrast the happy public visage. In other words, I believe the 'he just wants to be friends' line.
Some of the other factors in my agreeing to write down this man's name and phone number include his professed knowledge of sign language and the fact that he is 6' 4" tall. I am currently studying American Sign Language to improve my communication with a couple of my developmentally disabled clients at work, and I'm well aware of the lack of hearing men who can sign.
As for the height, it reminds me of a cute, but emotionally detached boyfriend in high school. I know, I know, everybody's cute and emotionally detached in high school. All I can remember about that high school beau is his height, hair, and a few facial features; his name is lost to me forever.
The other details about the man Jody has actually described as "tall, dark and handsome" are okay (self-employed, early 40's, salt-and-pepper hair), but not particularly important when I agree to try this out. Jody brings him up as her friend, but in fact, she is his financial advisor, so she also throws in some interesting financial figures. In all seriousness, I couldn't care less about any money he might have. I am looking for maturity. I married very young, divorced not much older, and although I dated before marriage, I never had the going-out-with-a-guy-as-friends experience -- except with my best friend Norm, and he doesn't count because he's like my brother.
Giddily, and with a pounding heart and flushed skin, I dial the number that I carelessly wrote on an old phone book cover. This man with a pleasant voice and calm demeanor answers the phone and we talk for a very short time. Unless I have something in mind, he has already planned out the date for Sunday and would like to wait until then to find out much about one another so that we have virtually guaranteed ourselves a conversation. I'm pretty nervous and can't get my tongue off the roof of my mouth, so this seems like a good idea to me. He is very respectful, including of my privacy; we'll meet at a local shopping center and ride together to the multiple destinations he has selected. I have about four days to get ready, and by Sunday I'm not nearly as nervous as I had expected. My mantra is "He just wants someone to hang out with, this guy could end up being a friend, this is so grown up." Yeah, it's a long mantra, but it's working.
Nonetheless, I am a young woman who still dreams of the fairy tale ending that has already passed me by, so I also wonder if this man might end up being The One.
The day has come, I put on something that is suitable for a variety of activities, including the brunch I was told to expect, and get to the shopping center parking lot as agreed. I'm there a few minutes early and the parking lot is almost empty. Not long after, a little Datsun pickup truck (didn't Datsun become Nissan when I was a little kid?) with what appears to be the original camper shell pulls up and parks next to me. I presume this is my date, but I can't see anything of the person inside. I wrestle with important decisions like "Do I get out now or wait another five seconds so I don't seem too anxious?"
Quasi-courage is quickly found and I exit my car with a smile, but with my eyes cast downward from double-checking the lock on my car because I'm still trying not to seem too interested. As I turn around, the first thing I notice is a pair of gray, old-man Dr. Scholl's (I am grateful they have laces instead of Velcro). My eyes move up a set of long legs and temporarily settle on the Hawaiian print shirt. As I struggle to make eye contact, I am surprised at the snow white beard and matching hair on the head of the man with 1970s aviator sunglasses complete with reflective lenses. The potential fairy tale ending is quickly dropped from the list of possibilities and the only voice I hear now is steadily repeating my mantra, "He just wants someone to hang out with, this guy could end up being a friend, this is so grown up."
We confirm to one another that we, at least for the next few hours, belong together. He opens his passenger door and holds it while I am seated and buckled. After carefully ensuring that I'm not hanging out of the vehicle, the door is closed and he takes the seat at the wheel. As we drive away, this pleasant old man tells me how glad he is that I was available and willing to go out with him. "I told Jody that I'm looking for a sweet, caring young lady and she thought of you," he says. This brings two thoughts to my mind: Old men always call girls "lady" with the hope of making the young woman believe that the man sees her as more mature than others her age; and Jody lied to me! I smile blandly and nod while looking out the window, grateful that he is driving and unable to see the disgust in my eyes.
We travel down the 10 freeway and I remember that this pleasant, but misguided old man knows sign language. I bring up my studies and quickly learn that he has, indeed, taken lessons from a friend who knows sign language. Even though I couldn't be attracted to this man if I were a bee and he a flower, I am thinking that we might still be friends. After all, men who take the time to learn sign language are rare. Despite the fact that he is driving, his idea is to sign a phrase to me, probably so that I will be impressed. Instead, I find that he knows Signed Exact English (this is how d/Deaf people are taught to read and write English; it has very little to do with American Sign Language, the true language of the Deaf), and that what he does know is quite limited. My mantra changes and grows quite a bit shorter, "It's grown-up to be polite and make the best of a blind date."
Our conversation doesn't really lag because this pleasant, but misguided and somewhat uninformed old man brings up a topic that is apparently close to his heart: Computers, or more specifically, the Internet. He talks about all of the information one can learn online and how it's a great way to meet others from all over. To keep me involved in the conversation, he tells of chat rooms where Deaf people meet. I find this pretty interesting, so he suggests we stop at his place before heading to brunch. I cautiously agree.
We head to an old part of Covina and pull into the driveway of a smallish yellow stucco house. The garage is behind the house, and we park next to it. There are two doors on this garage, the typical large door for the vehicle and also a regular door for a person to walk through. We use the smaller door and I quickly discover that this garage is actually home to my date. His belongings line the walls and his computer is set up in front of the large door. I avoid sitting down while he does all the clicking to find a chat room that is empty most of the time we are online. Without a total stranger to add to our date I am able to check out the surroundings, which include unfinished walls bearing black tar paper and chicken wire, and my sense of discomfort begins to grow. Still, I am treated respectfully and we are soon back on the road to brunch.
The restaurant is up on a hill, so the potential for a pretty, eye contact-saving view is good, and the place has a good reputation for their champagne brunch buffet. Upon arrival at our table (next to a window with a view of the parking lot), my date -- the heretofore pleasant, misguided, slightly uninformed, but respectful man -- rests his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands, smiles and says, "I have really got to pee."
I think of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," where Steve Martin's character says he has to pee and then does it in his seat at the dinner table, so I point over my shoulder and reply, "The bathroom's that way. Please go there first."
Before seeking relief he asks me to order "iced tea and just a little bit of champagne" for him and "all the champagne" I want. I quote his request to our server and ask for iced tea for myself. My date returns, plops down, spreads his arms out on the table and loudly sighs, "Aaaahhh."
It turns out that "a little bit of champagne" equals four glasses, coincidentally the same amount offered as part of our brunch. If any more is ordered he'll have to pay extra. I wonder if he will ask me to request my limit, too, but he does not; he has already had my two glasses along with his.
As I am being led quickly back to the table from the buffet line, he looks back over his shoulder and says, "Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?" I want to be honest, but "Yes, of course, I think it's something men are trained to say" seems rude, so I just smile and nod. The delightful pitter patter of my heart may be the reaction he is hoping for, but I think about how unromantic it is to have someone toss such a question at them while racing to the table to eat from a buffet. My mantra remains, "It's grown-up to be polite and make the best of a bad date."
Throughout our meal I learn about the trouble this tipsy, misguided, uninformed old man has with his siblings. Apparently his mother recently passed away and there is a quarrel about the rather sizable inheritance. One brother wants to exclude another who is suffering from HIV, and there is a feud over who has how much control over the estate.
While I ponder the type of people who would argue over something so pointless my mind looks to the future, where I see a wedding and a large home and a... Yeah, right. I'm getting worried about riding in this guy's truck, which has a stick shift I'm not sure I can operate. I recall Norm's efforts at teaching me to drive his truck and wish he would have realized I didn't hit that bush before he pulled the emergency brake. Then I might have learned enough to drive my date and myself safely back to my car.
Instead I start calculating the risks I might be taking and compare those to the risks I have already taken in my life. What seems like eons ago, I was occasionally known to ride with people who had imbibed more than they should have. I lived then, right? Chances are good I'll survive this, too. On the other hand, I have a son to think about now, and we haven't heard from his dad since that mess about a year ago, so it's not like he'll be taking over if I'm scraped up from the highway.
You might be thinking, "Hey, stupid... call a friend for a ride!" Yeah, good idea. To bad you're not here to straighten me out.
So I get into the truck with Dr. Jekyll, who has magically returned and wants to take a leisurely drive and continue our conversation. I watch for any signs of impaired driving and consider that it's probably better to be on a slower road rather than the freeway. We go through hilly green countryside, but it soon becomes clear that I won't be seeing my son or my home again until we make it through Carbon Canyon.
Carbon Canyon, the place where Norm has gotten permanent road rash -- not once, but twice. Granted, he was on rollerblades one time and a bike the other and I'm in a truck. Nevertheless, I think of those hairpin turns with loose gravel in the corners and my palms begin to sweat. The ride is smooth so far, but I look for any opportunity to jump from the truck before we get there, because if I'm going down, it won't be at the hands of some crazed, drunken old madman!
We make it safely through to the other side. I'm pale and shaky, but haven't soiled myself yet and have been very grown-up and polite, so I'm pretty happy. I start to think of my son and all the kisses I'm going to give him as soon as I get my arms around him.
My reverie is broken by a man's voice telling me he just has to make a quick stop at his mom's house, which is in nearby Via Verde. I smile and nod as the cloudy image of my son disintegrates into air. We arrive at another yellow house, only this one is as bright as the crayoned suns I made when I was a small child. It's too bright, almost nauseating. I must have just mumbled something about the color, because my date smiles broadly, happy that I've noticed the job he apparently did just before Mom died; she had loved it.
I am struck by the careful decorating inside this uninhabited home. It was high fashion in 1968 and hasn't been changed much since. The pictures on the wall are faded and yellowish-brown like everything else. Mama must have been a smoker. I can now see what my companion looked like when he was my age. There is nothing in that living room to suggest that the seventies have ended.
Just before excusing himself to take a really loud pee (did he close the door?) followed by a long, quiet time, Santa's younger, thinner brother opens the heavy once-white drapes and reveals a beautifully landscaped backyard. It's not large, but it's so green and filled with plants and a huge tree. He thinks he senses my thoughts and wants me to know, so he says, "Isn't that a great backyard?" I nod. "Wouldn't that be a great place for a little boy to grow up?" he asks. I nod again while silently screaming Not my little boy!
We leave as soon as he finishes in the powder room and are now heading toward the freeway. We should turn left onto the freeway right after the overpass, but instead he turns right and heads about a quarter mile uphill. This is not just any hill. This is the entrance to Forest Lawn Cemetery. He wants to stop and place flowers on his mother's grave since we're in the area. I think it would be bad form to deny a grieving man this chance, even though he lives less than ten miles away, so I acquiesce.
We stop at the flower shop at the top of the hill. The walls are filled with refrigerators full of beautiful flowers. I admire the roses and other bouquets while he looks around. In this flower shop full of mourners he cracks jokes about it being quiet as a tomb. I hope nobody knows I came in with him. This is made impossible when he points at all of the five gallon buckets holding eighty-nine cent painted carnations and tells me to "pick one out to remember our date by." It's not exactly Mr. Hyde that I'm with, more like Lounge Singer Larry. He's cheap, tacky, and ought to be wearing leisure suit and a large pewter eagle pendant over his exposed hairy chest.
I pick up a blue carnation that I plan to give to my son and we get back in the truck. Lounge Singer Larry is carrying the red and white carnations he selected for Mom. He asks me to accompany him to the grave site. I am so creeped out at this point by the whole date thus far, by his behavior in the flower shop, and especially by the thought that I'll have to walk on grass that is laying over dead bodies. Guh! The long stem of my carnation is in three pieces by the time he stops the truck.
My obsession with being polite is foreign to me. The childhood I had involved basic lessons in manners, but also included the importance of standing up for oneself and not "taking any crap from anybody." I am inexplicably filled with a desire to just smile and nod my way through whatever other tortures are left before I can get home, so I get out to visit Mama.
I turn away when he seems to be getting emotional. Since I fail to offer comfort, he takes the opportunity to come over and put his arm around me. I stand still, hands flatly at my side. He points out the valley below and says, "Isn't this a romantic view?" I'm stunned, but not by the view. I look up at him with an expression that must be clear, even to this guy. While staring up at him in disbelief I do have one clear thought that is untroubled by my situation: 6' 4" is the perfect height! Not this guy, of course, but someone sane and from my generation who is this height would be a very good thing.
I am brought back to reality when he changes the subject, but not the location of his arm. Since I am unaffected by the view, he switches to a brief history lesson. I learn about a relative who crashed a small plane into that hill right over there. More death does not open my lines of communication and we are soon back in the truck.
Another brief stop is necessary, he says, because he's recently bought Windows 95 and is unhappy with it. I am trying to decide if it's worth the hassle of insisting that he take me directly to my car. I think of my relatively young friendship with Jody and how she would be disappointed so I go along. We enter Computer City - a wonderful example of a multicultural workplace -- and look for a clerk to help with some advice and/or an exchange. The cretin I'm with refuses to be helped by any person who is not white, and makes quiet remarks about those who are not. I am embarrassed and head toward the front of the store to separate myself from him.
Back at the truck, he again holds my door for me. This clueless, racist old man gets in, sits down and says, "I could really use a hug." I reach over and pat his back twice, like I'm burping a baby that somebody else is holding. Then he says, "I would really like to kiss you." My brain is racing, the mantra is short and super fast now, "Bepolitebepolitebepolite."
I just shout, "NO!" and look away.
He drives me to my car at last and quietly tells me that he will leave the ball in my court. If I want to go out again, I should call him. I smile and nod as I exit, thinking how grown-up he is to say that so I won't have to worry about screening my calls for the next week or two.
Later that week I get a call from Jody, asking about my date. I tell her all about it, laughing and being dramatic at the same time. Finally I ask her what the heck she was thinking, setting me up with that guy. As I listen to her response it occurs to me that she knows me not at all, and that I know her as much. Jody is a little surprised at her "friend's" behavior, but tells me that he had a great time. "He really respected that you wouldn't kiss on a first date. He's offered to rent a limo so we can go see the live production of Beauty and the Beast," she says.
I wonder if our friendship will survive this date. I can no longer just smile and nod, and my desire to be polite has practically disappeared. Now I'm not taking any crap from anybody.
Monday, September 16, 2002
Today marks the beginning of the part of my life that I could not control the way I'd like. That's not really true; I guess I've never been able to control it and never really knew where I was trying to go... maybe I wasn't trying to go anywhere, I was just going. So this marks the beginning of the time when I figured out what I wanted and tried to find the best (most entertaining, most adventurous, most passionate, most educational) way to get there. This date will henceforth also mark the beginning of my realization that I don't know how to drive.
Saturday, September 14, 2002
Isn't it amazing how the small things in life can make you happy? Earlier this week it was that my parent organization sent over notebooks and pens bearing our logo. Then, the elected official who oversees my organization mentioned the department I work for and, even better, my specific office! I thought that was about the coolest thing I could ever hear from him. I'm probably right.