ONE POTHOLE TOO MANY
In my unceasing efforts to become a cantankerous anachronism, I drive a beat up old pickup truck. When Washington came up with the idiotic “Cash For Clunkers” idea, I proved I was a “Bitter Clinger,” because I clung to my clunker.
I tend to be one of those annoying old coots that drive too slowly on country roads. I drive slowly because I’m keeping an eye on Washington, and not on the road.
The “Cash For Clunkers” foolishness attempted to stimulate sales of GM cars, (GM stands for “Government Motors,”) and also “help the environment” by buying and destroying the old rust bucket vehicles poor people drive. As usual, it was a waste of tax dollars, a waste of perfectly good rust buckets, and was written by some Washington nitwit who imagined they cared for the poor, but had only the most theoretical idea of what poverty is like. They actually hurt the poor by making the used vehicles the poor drive become scarce. Even the most naïve college freshman, with the most elementary awareness of supply-and-demand economics, knows that if you make vehicles scarce you will raise the price of even second-hand cars beyond what the poorest can pay.
Though I began life with a silver spoon in my mouth, I have proved to be very downwardly mobile, and do know what poverty is like. It was not the script I had envisioned for myself, as a young man, however I think I’ve lived a relatively decent life, especially compared to fools in Washington.
Whenever I came to a fork in the road, and the choice seemed to be between the right thing and the rewarding thing, I would try to do the right thing. In the long term that leads to strength, however in the short term it can get you fired and lead to poverty. It can also lead you away from the silver spoons, and allows you to get to know the salt of the earth.
While the poor include drunkards and scoundrels who deserve to be poor, it also includes the hardest workers and the most decent people, who deserve better than Washington’s corrupt nonsense. Where Washington seems intent on controlling the so-called masses, the masses are actual people, who deserve freedom.
I have never made a car payment in my life. I read Henry Thoreau when young, and liked his ideas about “economy.” Rather than seeking freedom by earning more, I seek freedom by spending less.
Cars do increase people’s freedom, to a degree, but they also enslave people. When you add up your car payment with what you spend on gas, add in the insurance and the cost of tires and repairs, it turns you are spending a good part of each week being a slave to a job in order to have the freedom of a car.
As a young writer, I could either work hard at my writing, and make zero, or work hard for others and make minimum wage. The simple economic reality I faced taught me a lot about using as little gas as possible, while driving (and sometimes sleeping in) the cheapest car I could find.
It didn’t keep me from wandering from coast to coast, however once I arrived in an area I tended to work close to where I lived, and, if possible, even to walk to work. Rather than feeling “stuck” in the narrow confines of an area, I found I was getting to know my neighbors and neighborhood in a deeper way than those who hurry off at dawn to travel many miles. Some hard working commuters don’t know their neighbors, even after years.
Also I found I got to know local people even better than tourists, who arrive in an area with the express purpose of getting to know the area. For example, some work fifty weeks a year, and then travel and lodge for two weeks in luxury in the American Southwest, and see the Painted Desert and Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, and perhaps visit a few Navajo tourist traps, and gain only the most superficial idea of what the area is like. For me, that was where my car broke down, and I quite accidentally got to know the Navajo better than tourists, and even anthropologists, because I had to work with them, live with them, eat with them, and drink with them.
For me the mileage on my odometer did not measure freedom. While I greatly enjoy driving long distances on interstates, and watching the landscapes flow by, I find I can achieve the same state of mind while walking. (Or, back in the day, hitchhiking.)
I’ve talked with some people who say one of their favorite times of day is commuting to and from work, for neither their boss nor family are haranguing them, and I nod. I know the feeling, but I have felt the same way while walking to work, and while walking unemployed, or even while just sitting with a notebook, nibbling the eraser of a pencil and watching a passing cloud. Freedom, it turns out, is more of a state of mind than a set of circumstances.
However I chose circumstances involving driving clunkers, simply because car expenses of five hundred dollars a year meant I needed to work less and could write more. For the same reason I heated with wood, because I enjoyed cutting and splitting wood to a degree where it was no more “work” than going to “work-out” at a gym is, (and it definitely cost less.) I knew of places where I could cut wood for free, and my heating expences of merely a hundred a year for my maul and chainsaw meant I needed to work less and could write more. Spending a hundred a week for fuel in January would have meant I had to work overtime.
This brings me up to today, when I’m sixty but still in good shape, and still splitting wood and chucking it into the back of my rust-bucket pick-up to burn at home. (I eventually figured I ought make some sort of plan for when I got too old and frail for the splitting I enjoy so much, so I had a modern propane heater put in the cellar last year, however hot air coming out of vents simply lacks the charm and radiance of a hot woodstove, so I remain stuck in my ways.) (I still wield my eight pound maul, and my propane bill remains low.)
The children at our Childcare are always clamoring for rides in my rust bucket, when they see me lurching across the pasture (before the snow falls) with a load of wood. I saw no harm in giving them rides, for no harm ever befell me, from riding in the back of a pickup as a boy. However some parents saw danger, and once again my wife had to use her amazing charm and diplomatic skills, after her husband once again blithely offended customers. Now I make sure to have permission slips before children clamber in the back, and I creep across the pasture at around three miles an hour.
There is not yet a law in New Hampshire outlawing riding in the back of pickup trucks on your own property, but it is against the law out on public roads. On trips outside of our uncivilized farm we use my wife’s more classy pick–up to drive the children. We make sure they are all belted and buckled in the appropriate booster seats, with the appropriate airbags turned off because, (like many ideas emanating from Washington,) the inflation of airbags when bumpers bumped tended to harm more children than they helped.
The kids prefer me, as a chauffer, to my wife, because I think commuting to kindergarten is dull, and I’m always looking for ways to liven the trip up. After all, modern children are going to spend a chunk of their lives commuting, and if you don’t teach them how to make a dull journey joyous, their lives might be a drag. In fact, come to think of it, life itself is but one long commute from birth to death, and can become pretty dull if you don’t make an effort to jazz it up. (However perhaps I’m getting too profound…. if so, please excuse me.)
Someday I’ll write a post about the many ways I make the trip more interesting, however for now I’ll just talk about potholes. Our roads are full of potholes, this time of year, but until the freezing and thawing and plowing is done with, it is an exercise in futility (and desperation) to send a member of the road crew out with a small dump truck and a load of “hot-pack” asphalt on the truck’s dropped tailgate. I did see one lone fellow shoveling the black, smoking tar into the potholes on our road, during the brief warm spell earlier this week, but that was only because our road has become so amazingly cratered.
When there is no oncoming traffic many adopt a weaving way of driving. It just makes sense to avoid as much spinal compression as possible. It is no big deal, but when I am transporting the children I do make it a big deal. I drive the same way I always do, but become very emotional about the potholes we avoid, shouting, “Look out! Look out to the left! Swerve right! Aurgh! Back to the left! Pothole alert! Alert to the right! To the left! A killer to the right! To the left, no, no, back to the right! To the right, I say! To the right!”
It makes the dull drive more interesting, and the children don’t seem to mind one bit.
Also it keeps my wife’s truck in better shape than mine. My truck takes all the abuse, and has seen better days. (It’s a 2001 Chevy S-10, which I got from my deceased stepmother, and she rolled it once.) (Also a tree fell on it, during a major ice-storm that knocked out power in these parts for ten days, four years ago.)
A couple of days ago I had it right down on its springs, loaded with sand to spread on the Childcare drive and to fill the ruts with, and I hit a pothole I couldn’t avoid, due to oncoming traffic. The truck bottomed out with a horrible grunch and grinding, and I winced, but was in a hurry to spread sand before we opened, and didn’t check for damages. A little later I noticed the brakes seemed a bit soft, and winced again, figuring I’d damaged a brake line, but by then the ice was turning to slush, and I didn’t envision slithering around in ice-water under the rear end would be much fun, so I again procrastinated. I figured I’d just drive slower, until I found the time, and a dry payment.
Driving slow is part of becoming a cantankerous anachronism. When I was younger, and had places to go and things to do and people to meet, I drove fast and hated getting stuck behind an old coot on a country road. Now that I’ve become an old coot I understand driving slowly, and it’s the young who seem senseless.
When you are old it occurs to you that you haven’t got much time left, and therefore you are in no hurry to see things pass. It makes no sense that young people, who have so much more time, want it to pass faster.
Worst of all are the Yupfees. (Young Professional Females.) Yupfees hate to get stuck behind me when I’m driving along, enjoying the beauty of the countryside. One time I heard a blaring horn, and glanced in my rear view mirror to see a poor girl in an absolute rage, shaking her fist in the air and bouncing in her seat. So of course I pulled over to let her pass, because it is only common courtesy to let the hurried and harried pass, and she sure did look harried. Yupfees start out for work looking all groomed and gorgeous, but behind me they become disheveled fairly fast. I gave her a friendly nod as she accelerated by, but only got a glare in return.
Therefore I was careful to look in my rearview mirror as I slowly headed for work yesterday, with my brakes softer than ever. It was one of those frosty mornings when everyone is five minutes late and driving half-blind, due to thick white ice on the windshields which isn’t completely scraped off, due to hurry, but I could see through mine, and saw the expressions on all the Yupsfee’s faces when I came to a local intersection, hit the brakes, and nothing happened. I sailed right through, with swerving Yupfees to the left of me, swerving Yupfees to the right of me, all abruptly having bad hair days. Then I continued on. No harm done. But I did drive a bit faster, despite the bad brakes, because I was a bit nervous a Yupfee might come after me.
Arriving safely at work I crawled under the truck to have a look-see. What a mess. A strut is snapped off, a shock dangles loose, the brake line is leaking, and I’m not sure there’s enough of the frame un-rusted to do any welding. It looked like that lone pothole completely totaled my truck.
Oh well. These things happen, when you drive clunkers. Time for a new one, I suppose. But they are danged hard to find, thanks to “Cash For Clunkers.”