Russ Ringsak

Why The Heck Not

June 23, 2005

Last Wednesday I left St Paul for Cuyahoga Falls at two in the afternoon, late on purpose. I figured that by 8:00 PM the awful Chicago rush would be over, and it was; breezed clean through like a dream, until just past the south side of the loop. Or, more properly, The Loop, or Da Loop. Whichever term it was south of, it was in that confluence of I-90, I-94 and I-57 that the mighty mass of traffic from north Chicago and from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Montana, Alberta, Washington, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Alaska was all forced into one lane. A gigantic toothpaste tube, bigger than a tall silo, full of B-Bs, squeezing one by one through an exit hole made by an ice pick.

But enough trucker waa-waa-waa. I lived through it. I’ve been down there in third gear before, with the next seven waiting their turn for what seems like eons and millennia but for what in fact isn’t even a strobe flash in the planet’s time line. Patience, son; for some reason a difficult skill for most of us in this business.

I crossed the great bridge and banged over the always-rebuilding Chicago Skyway and on through the wires and towers and monster mills of Gary and Hammond, all fire and smoke in the darkness; caught Interstate 80 and just before the first big cash box on the Indiana Tollway saw the exit to Portage and a Day’s Inn sign. It was past eleven and suddenly a diner and an actual motel room seemed appealing. Maybe I could even plug in the computer and get some work done before getting back on the road. Or, if the place was full, park in some big quiet lot somewhere. I’d been by the Portage exit a hundred times or more and had never stopped in. Why the heck not.

I was about to find out why the heck not. Came to a T and took a left toward the traffic lights and saw no Days Inn, but there was a spread of strip malls to the left and I went for it. Big parking lots, a few fast food places still aglow but no real diners and no big motel. At the far end of the three blocks a Kentucky Fried was all lit up. I found a remote place in the shadows behind it and backed in; looked like a good place to sleep. I’d be just a truck waiting to deliver to some local shop in the morning. The KFC was lit but locked. I nearly stumbled over a body lying on the walk when I came around in front, a teenage kid who said, when he saw me jerk, “Jist waitin’ for my ride.” He looked like a homeless guy down for the night.

Across the lot next door a McDonald’s sign said Drive Thru Open 24 Hours and there were people inside at work. I tried the door but it was bolted. Three cars were in line to order at the speaker, and I was hungry. I was too well-parked to leave and go back to the superslab. I pondered, reluctant to look foolish. Then I got in line.

A very silly feeling, like some old giraffe trapped in a kiddy parade, standing there fourth in line in a string of cars, the last one a smoky Honda Civic with a fast idle and that aftermarket loud pipe. It took a while. I was glad that nobody I knew could see me. The first in line had a tough time getting their order figured out. I could hear them over the pop music in the car radios: “No, make that a chocolate shake — yah, one chocolate and one vanilla — no, okay, two chocolate. Change that to two chocolate shakes — so now it’s one Big Mac and two double cheeseburger and the chicken fingers, and two Coke — I know, but they changed it –— and fries with the Big Mac and just one of the double cheese — yah, just two fries, and — and — ” You know the drill.

I finally got to the speaker by the menu. It didn’t greet me. I said Hello into it. I said it twice more, louder and closer each time. Nothing. I figured maybe I wasn’t big enough to set off the motion detector. I walked ahead and stood behind the loud smelly Honda again. They finally moved up and got their stuff and I said to the young lady at the window, “I tried to order at the speaker but it wouldn’t say anything. I just want a quick double cheeseburger.”

“We don’t serve anything through the window unless you’re in a vehicle. You have to be in a car or something.”

“What are you talkin’ about? Come on. I’m hungry. Just hand me the burger. It’s not that difficult.”

“Our policy is that we can’t serve you unless you’re in a vehicle. It’s company policy.”

“Look. I’m in a vehicle. That’s it sitting over there. The semi. It can’t make the turn into here and it’s too big to fit under your canopy. But I’m driving a vehicle.”

“We aren’t allowed to do it if you walk up, that’s all.”

She was enjoying her power way too much. “Who’s gonna find out? What’s the harm? I’m a driver, for chrissakes.”

“We can’t do it. It’s against our policy.” If I had a policy, I thought, it would be against doing business with a little idiot twit like you. But a guy had pulled up on a Harley and placed an order at the speaker and was now behind me at the window. I walked back to him and said, “How about givin’ me a hand?” And I explained the problem.

“They won’t sell you a burger? Un — believable,” he said, slipping a common non-family-publication word into unbelievable, making it seven syllables. “Sure, I’ll get you one.”

I gave him a five and he amended his order. It didn’t take long, and he handed me my dinner. “Saved by a biker again,” I said, “Seems like bikers are the only damn people left in this country with any sense at all.”

“Ya, I hear ya,” he said, handing me two bucks.

“Keep it. I wanna buy you a cool one, just for bein’ here.”

“No man — you’da done the same.”

“I know. And I’d letcha buy me a beer, too.”

“Well — okay, I guess.” He put his paper bag in a studded leather saddlebag and putted off.

I stifled my urge to holler something vulgar into the drive-up window and walked to the truck, thankful for the timing of the biker. Took an Arizona Ice Tea out of the little cooler and wolfed it all down, climbed back in the sleeper, undressed and was asleep in about two minutes, although that’s a difficult event to measure by yourself. It was just before midnight, anyway. Time passed and there came a heavy banging on the side of the truck. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. I knew it could only be the cops. No criminals would do that. I didn’t say anything. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. THUMP!! An extra one tacked on at the end. The sleeper vent was open and I hollered, “Yeah? Whaddya want?” A pause. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. “Whaddya want?” By then I was pulling my Wranglers on. A hard voice said, “Git yer head out here where I can see you.”

I stuck my head through the curtain and he was standing underneath the driver’s window, a young beefy guy, hatless and humorless, standing by a squad car. I cranked the window partway down. He said, “You can’t park here! You gotta move this thing!” He seemed to have something black in his hand, like a billy, but I couldn’t see for sure. I looked at my watch. 4:30. I said, “I’ll be outta here at six. I need to meet a guy here who has to put somethin’ on the truck.”

“Gotta move it now. Ya can’t park it here.”

“It’s only an hour and a half. What’s the harm in that?”

“City ordinance says you can’t park here. Move it. Get it outta here. Now.”

So I got dressed and drove out to the I-80 toll booth and got my ticket and stopped at the first rest area I came to. It was close to five o’clock and a few trucks had left and I found a place, which is not that easy these days. There is so much truck traffic out there that the usual rest areas and truckstops are jammed by nine o’clock at night. (So don’t tell me the economy is lousy; when it’s lousy there are parking spaces.) I woke at six-thirty, all slept out after my usual six hours’ worth and facing the common log book dilemma: The new regulations say you have to take ten hours off, so I could either tear out the previous day’s page and re-write the departure time back four hours or I could sit in the truck in the parking lot for four hours and watch the traffic. The old “my dog ate my log book” doesn’t work when you don’t have a dog along. So whatever you would have done, dear reader, that’s probably what I did.

Our house band sounded dynamite at the Blossom Music Center, with Cindy Cashdollar and Elana Fremerman sitting in. (I know, but “dynamite” is an adverb in some circles.) Elana plays fiddle with a great verve and Cindy is one of those people like Michael Jordan, who make everyone around them play better. We were loaded up before ten o’clock — the truck was, anyway — and we slipped out of there and in less than eight miles were back on the Ohio Tollway. The big outdoor venues all have in common these narrow roads leading through trees to the stage docks, and when you pass through there the leaves brush the side of the truck. It feels sort of like the passage of the Pope, moving slowly, worshippers reaching out for just a touch.

Got home on Sunday, a gorgeous day to mow the lawn, and on Monday evening watched the contrasting tornado clouds gathering, rotating, the very tops a clean white in the sun, while underneath there was a churning low blue-black mass building to the northwest; the color of pure dread. We called a lady who lives on Big Marine Lake, above which the most menacing cloud seemed to be hovering. The tornado sirens in town had begun to wail and we wondered if she was aware of all the fuss. She wasn’t; she was sitting there watching some show on cable, but now she sprang into action.

She’s eighty-seven years old and when tornadoes threaten she always goes down to the basement and sits there in her life jacket. That an unsteady elderly lady would expect to survive a tornado ripping her out of her house and hurling her out into the lake is an idea so filled with the optimism of the human spirit that one cannot think about it without smiling. The mental image of her paddling back to her ruined house on the shore in her colorful life jacket makes one proud just to be in the same general gene pool.

©R.Ringsak 2005

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