Looking for Hidden Meanings
June 1, 2002
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Got a late start for Los Angeles, and just as I opened the door to load my pickup a bee flew in there and crawled under the driver's seat, way under the metal plate there where you couldn't see him. I knew he'd fly out at some critical moment in traffic and try to cause a wreck. I stood there dumbfounded. Couldn't think of any way to get him out. Finally stuck my head down there and yelled GET OUT OF THERE YOU -- and I called him a bad name with a vulgar adjective in front of it, and he flew out. Surprised me; I didn't know whether to take it as a good omen or a bad one.
Had to run some errands on my way to the truck yard, including a stop at a music store where I asked my pal Dave what was new. Well, he said, a guy had just run out the back door with a vintage Gibson SG electric guitar; the alarm went off and one of their other salesmen, a guy in his late 40s who was still playing basketball, went streaking after him. The lawbreaker was by then on a bicycle, carrying the uncased guitar aloft in one hand, pedaling like crazy between cars through this big multiple strip-mall parking lot; the salesman could keep pace but wasn't gaining on him. After what would have been a couple of long city blocks a guy in a Lexus SUV saw him running with his name tag flying in the breeze and said "You after that guy?" and he said Yes; "Get in!" he said and they went squealing around the cars and flying over speed bumps and they cut him off; the salesman jumped out and sent man, bike and guitar all a-flying.
The thief looked to be in his 30s, 'sort of dumpy-looking,' and he had dislocated his left shoulder and fouled his britches and he was begging to be let go, saying he wasn't a criminal but he just needed money really bad. Please, please, please. The SUV guy was already on the phone to 911 and the salesman was telling the guy he was staying right where he was and he wasn't going anywhere, and the cops were there in three minutes. Before he left the SUV guy grinned and told the salesman: "Man, I do like to drive fast." The worst part of the deal, Dave said, was that the guitar was smashed; "A really nice one, too. We were asking two thousand for it and that was a bargain. Kind of a shame; he coulda grabbed something else."
A classic little 15-minute morality play there. The quiet morning in the store, the sudden heist and escape on horseback by the villain, the alarm, the chase, the stranger on the faster horse, the capture, the destruction of the prize, the desperate pleadings of the no-account culprit, the arrival of the sheriff and the departure of the stranger; a good sendoff story, I thought, for a journey way out west.
Went to the lot, fired up the truck, and while the air pressure built up loaded my gear into the sleeper, made the bed, did the log book and inspection and wondered if airline pilots find ways to enjoy the pre-flight rituals. The trip never really starts until you clear the city, settle into top gear and hit cruise control. On the way out of town I passed a beat-up old Freightliner with a greasy dump trailer, the back gate looking like it was used to haul industrial brack; there was a metal sign back there, big block letters barely legible under the grime, reading: INEDIBLE. On the side was another sign, same dirty 10-inch letters and the same murky message: INEDIBLE. No company name, just a warning, in case you might look at this mess and think you'd like to take a bite. You had to wonder what an EDIBLE truck looked like. You wondered if the sign wouldn't make more sense if it said INEVITABLE or ILLEGIBLE, or even INCREDIBLE.
Saw a couple of bumper stickers: a pickup said Vietnam Vets Are Not FONDA JANE and a car said Ted Kennedy's Car Has Killed More People Than My Gun; both of these were carrying Wisconsin plates. Sometimes you see an old van plastered with Green Party and Nader and PETA and Just Say NO To Sex With Pro-Lifers, and My Kid Is An Honor Student at some preschool, but these are more likely to be Minneapolis cars. Out west you see messages like Driver Carries No Cash - Wife And Kids Have It All, and out east you see college names like Radcliffe, Williams, Georgetown; probably a similar message, when you think about it. But bumper stickers seem to be fading as a form of expression; maybe the internet is the current outlet of favor.
It was a good cruise out to the west coast, down I-35 to I-80, past Wahoo; in Nebraska the rest area washrooms say MEN and LADIES, one of the last states to still officially use that term. Catch westbound I-70 at Denver to I-15, south through Vegas (108 degrees there) and Bakersfield. Western Colorado and Utah landscapes are like huge dreams; I recommend the surprise view from the rest area at Exit 114 on I-70 in Utah. You will thank me.
It turned out to be 1950 miles from the yard to the Greek Theatre, up on the steep wooded hill in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the first 1949.9 miles went pretty well. But at 11:30 Thursday night, as the crowd from the Kenny Chesney show was still exiting and we ówe being me and the truckó were grinding slowly uphill into the headlights of the downhill traffic, pinched between police pylons and the curb in a fine neighborhood and waved on by police flashlights, we hit the unseen branch of a big Chinese elm. BANG! It was loud, and we were SDN; Stopped Dead Now. When we finally jockeyed it free of the tree the motorcycle cops were gone; nobody was too anxious to hang around for any paperwork.
But of course that's my story; it's never the truck driver's fault, no matter what happens. The truth is that a shortage of truckdriver attitude on my part is what caused this mess. I should have just stopped in traffic, set the brakes and said, "No way in hell am I going up this hill next to these trees, officer. Drive it yourself if you want to, but I ain't movin' it. You can put the cuffs on me right now 'cause I jist do not give a damn, I am not smashin' my rig on these here trees and I don't care if it takes all night to get these (vulgarity) cars down this (vulgarity) hill." That would have been proper trucker behavior, the kind you hear talked about in the truck stops but which in real life one rarely has the presence of mind to pull off.
But here it was, after nearly two thousand miles through mountains, deserts, construction zones, rock canyons, 8-mile downhill grades, past three wrecks, stopped at five scales and past a dozen others, past a DOT inspection, through 70 miles of Denver and L.A. freeway traffic; and everything goes fine until the last city block. It's that last few feet that get you in trouble, and it doesn't matter how good the other part went. It's like missing the layup at the end of the game; it's what they remember.
Finally parked the trailer up there and took the truck down to the hotel about 2:00 AM. At a red light at the base of the hill I saw a mangy coyote foraging along the gutter; he looked up at me with the streetlight in his yellow eyes and we held a brief stare-down, and then he moved off like he was not much impressed with me either.
Box trailers are like eggs, and we crunched the top right corner so bad we had to make a switch and leave it in L.A. It took most of Saturday before the show to do the exchange; no need to go into the details of digging a 53-foot trailer out of a tight city-bound yard and all the rest of it. We were just glad to be leasing equipment from a company who could make that kind of switch on short notice.
Anyway, it was another morality play only this time I was in it, and the moral is that in this business close don't count, that 70% is not a passing grade and neither is 99.99%: a thousand miles means nothing if you mess up the last few feet. And I still don't understand what the omen of the bee was. But the trip has a long way to go, to D.C. and Kansas City and Kettering in Ohio and Tanglewood in Massachusetts and then back to Minnesota. Maybe some other hidden meaning will reveal itself along the way. In the meantime I'm thinking about that implacable Chinese elm and wondering if I'll think about it every time I have Chinese food. And what's that surly coyote got to do with any of this?