When I'm covering a game, I always dress in a crisp shirt and a solid-color tie, usually a coat as well... just like the coaches do. It's important to look nice. (That's something I picked up from Andy Katz.)
Those coaches, and sometimes other media members, will occasionally engage me in conversation about how far away from home I am. Sometimes they'll ask, "Where are you staying?"
In the past, I'd always reply with "Comfort Inn," which of course is a synonym for "rental car." I don't like lying or intentional misdirection when it's not explicitly required, so I've changed that. Now I say, "oh, you know, around," or "I'm not staying... I'm goin'
More and more of the people I run into know about how I travel -- word gets around -- and some of them invite me over to their houses to sleep in the guest room or the couch or the floor. I smile, try not to be offended by insinuations that I'm too poor to afford a room, and then I decline. I don't want to waste time explaining that there aren't enough hours in the day to drive hundreds of miles, write thousands of words, and
pay awkward social calls. So I try to change the subject.
That usually doesn't work. They want to know more about how I operate on the road, it's temporarily fascinating to them. "You do need to wash yourself, right?" they ask. "Where do you get cleaned up?"
These people obviously do not know about truck stop showers. Truckers usually don't have the time to stop, get a hotel, sleep/shower/shave, and get out on the road refreshed and ready to take on a clean new day. They have deadlines, and so do I. Truckers need to get bottled water to Baltimore and gasoline to Galveston, and I need to make tip in Terre Haute.
Truck stop showers were designed for truckers, and they're usually free with a 50-gallon fillup. There isn't a passenger vehicle that holds that much fuel, so we pay cash. There are shower machines at the TA's where you can buy a shower coupon for nine bucks (the machines don't give out change, though... why don't they just make them $10 so we don't have to buy a candy bar to break a large bill?). At the Pilot, they charge ten but you have to go up to the fuel desk. Flying J is currently the best deal at $6.50, but you have to put up a $5 "towel deposit." I've been noticing signs at the J's stating that the price is going up soon to $8.50, but they're doing away with the deposit. When that happens, Love's will be the shower champ with a $7 charge. Love's is good for a lot of things.
Pilot and Love's both still go with the key system. Pilot gives you a key with a yellow fob that you put in a plastic box after you're done, and Love's has the key attached to a stick, which is reminiscent of those sawed-off broomhandles that the service stations use for their restrooms. Flying J and TA are here in the 21st Century, though -- your shower purchase gets you a slip of paper with a keycode on it. You punch that into a keypad on the stall door and it buzzes you in.
Fifteen or 20 minutes, and you're on your way, just as clean as if you just stepped out of a hotel.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
It's not always so streamlined, though. Late Wednesday morning in southern Virginia, I'm at a Pilot. It's the only truck stop for miles, so if I want to get clean, this is the place to do it.
At the Pilot, if there's no shower available, the clerk gives you the dreaded white plastic card. It's got a number on it, just like at the deli. The white card means you wait.
I plunk down a ten, and pull number seven. Good old lucky seven.
The building is small and overcrowded with merchandise aisles full of potato chips, energy powders and satellite radios, so there's nowhere to sit except for a two-table deli setup in the far corner. The air is thick with menthol cigarette smoke, and at the other table, number 5 -- a large, bespectacled African-American man wearing overalls -- is talking loudly on his cell phone.
From what I gather in 20 minutes of waiting, he's coming off his run tonight and is trying to coordinate a DVD rental with his wife.
"Get that Bruce Willis one, the shoot-'em-up."
"I don't know what in the hell it's called, the one where he's the cop. Remember that? We saw the commercial together, I told you right then I wanted to see it when it came out on the DVD."
"The one where he's shootin' everything, all the motherfuckers. You don't remember what it's called? Damn, woman, what you good for?"
Click. He tries to draw me into a conversation about how useless wives are, but just then his number is called. There's one person on shower-cleaning duty, an old bow-backed man who shuffles along with his bucket. There are five stalls, and three of them have open doors revealing strewn towels and partial flooding. Charlie -- that's what the nametag on his light brown shirt says -- just can't keep up.
An hour after I sit down, Charlie makes his way over to me, exchanges my white number card with a yellow-chained key. "Sorry 'bout the wait, brother," he says.
"That's okay," I reply. "I don't have to be anywhere until 7:05 pm."✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
I had a dream that night. In the dream, I was a celebrity judge in a dog show. I stood there in my coat and tie, trying to smile and nod approvingly as each group of dogs was paraded through. For each class, an actual judge would step forward and signal who the winner was. I wasn't asked to give input, or cast a ballot, or voice my opinion in any way. I wondered what I was doing there, why they had asked me to be a part of this.
A series of dobermans, bull mastiffs, rottweilers was led to the stage -- mangy, dirty, frothing at the mouth. These were attack dogs, I thought, I'd never seen a show on television featuring these types before. Then I noticed that everybody had left, and I was alone in the arena.
I looked up and saw that the others were in a glass booth above the floor, and were watching with wide-eyed intensity. As the drooling beasts moved towards me, I realized it was all a setup. This wasn't a dog show, I was the main attraction. And I was going to die.
I recognized the absurdity of the situation for the dream state it was, and shook myself out of sleep. In an instant, I was back in another ridiculous situation -- sitting in the front seat of a rented Hyundai Elantra, at a rest area outside Statesville, North Carolina. After a few moments of re-achieving clarity, I keyed the ignition and kept moving down the west side of Interstate 40. There was a lane blocked off with flares, with flashing police and fire engine lights, illuminating two twisted and crushed vehicles.
Ten minutes later, I was at a dark and dingy Waffle House, its paint faded and dirty, yellow beacon lights flickering and sputtering as if the thick Carolina night was a black liquid to drown in. In the parking lot, a white Ford with one headlight out, idling, enveloped in a thick billow of exhaust smoke. The passenger-side windshield was smashed, impacted yet still held intact, a spiderweb of safety glass. Three men sat in the car, eyes peering out from under oversized baseball caps, slowly tracking my progress as I left the Hyundai and approached the establishment's front door.
Inside, a thick 2:30 a.m. silence, the audible buzz in one's ears when there's no external sound to process. The line cook and waitress stood stone-faced against the back wall, until I sat in the chair and ordered my usual: eggs and hashbrowns. Once the meal came, every scrape of the fork against the plate echoed and bounced across the walls of the dim restaurant. This very well could have been the Waffle House at the end of the world.
I paid the bill at the counter as quickly as I could. As I handed over my credit card for payment, the waitress' cell phone rang. She didn't wait to finish the transaction, she flipped open her phone and carried on a short conversation, holding my financial instrument in her free hand.
"Are you sure?" she asked the person on the other end of the line. "Do they know it was him? Are you sure?"
She clutched the phone to her breast, turned to the line cook. "Bernard just died," she said.
"Sorry, you'll have to excuse me," she said to me, shaking. "I..."
As the tears welled up in her eyes and her upper body sank and deflated, I couldn't think of any words to say, much less the right ones. I'd never been in that situation before. I signed the receipt, put two extra dollars on the tip line I might not have surrendered otherwise, then disappeared back into the dead of night, a night heavy with death.
There's so much teeming life in this world, so many people who aren't dead yet -- death remains a strange, uncommon and unwelcome intrusion. Sometimes I wonder, though... we now have so many new ways to communicate with others, so many new methods with which we can be communicated to, so many more known strangers than previous generations ever had. How will the deaths of reality television stars, Z-list personalities, bloggers and marginal celebrities affect us? Will the cumulative effect of a thousand thousand obituaries of those we vaguely remember depress us inconsolably, numb us to the specter of death? Or will we become more accepting of its darkness?
In any event, promise me this: if my own road ends out here, tell them I was a great guy, gloss over all the bad parts, say all the things that one says when somebody they hardly know gets theirs. And please make sure they play this song
at my (non-denominational) service. It's by the New Pornographers.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
The Interstate is a dangerous dance: cars going at top speeds, three lanes thick... speeding bullets capable of destroying each other at the slightest brush. It's a wonder it doesn't happen every few seconds, that the highways aren't littered with smoking auto carcasses.
Before I go to sleep, I think about five-star crash ratings, crumple zones and learning a lot from dummies. I marvel at the decades of research and development that went towards creating the modern automobile, intricate maruschkas of style and comfort and safety. Then I click the engage button on the keychain, the alarm twitter-tweets, and I'm protected from all outside harm. It may not have been the intention of the designers, but the alarm system can work in the same way one might arm a house.
As I sit here on the edge of consciousness in this golden cocoon of Korean design, this chamber of steel and glass and electronics, I know this is where I am safe. This motorized womb, above all other places on earth, is where I feel most at home.Games: 26
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