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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Gimme a Break, It's only a Car

Well I feel just awful. It's like I just dropped my old dog off at the kill shelter.

I have a bit of a problem when it comes to cars. Okay, not every car. I have had lemons that I was more than happy to trade in. That underpowered Suzuki Samurai, for instance. You know you made a mistake when tractor-trailers are passing you going up a steep incline. And that Suzuki Vitara (I know; shame on me. I didn’t learn the first time.) It wasn’t even a Grand Vitara, which is one of the biggest oxymorons ever produced. Yeah, that Vitara, whose check engine light refused to ever go out, and no one could figure out what was wrong with it. 

There are cars, though, that I get attached to in a less than healthy way.

There’s the first car, of course, by which all other standards are measured. I had saved up $1000, and when I was 16 I bought a bright red, two-year-old VW Superbeetle that I nicknamed “Chigger.” Also not the best car ever made, but it was more than a car; it was my freedom. It was my escape out of a house of thundering alcoholics. It was the car I drove home one early, pre-dawn morning when I realized that there was no more pretending to be straight. It was a car I wrecked and repainted twice, and the car on which I taught myself how to change oil. Ten years after I bought the car, I was leaving the country for a year, and I sold it at a profit for $1200. When does that ever happen? And I cried when I turned over the keys. Gimme a break, I was only 26.

When my cousins gave me my Aunt Kay’s 1972 Volvo not long after she died, it arrived from Denver on the back of a car carrier. It was severely oxidized, and the driver’s door was several shades of blue lighter than Old Blue, because it had sat in her garage for years next to a window where the sun bleached it out. The driver of the carrier told me, “Be careful. That car don’t have no brakes.” I idled it into my driveway, stepped on the brake and nothing happened. I had to yank the emergency brake to keep it from hitting the garage door. It looked old and depleted. Its driver, the person I loved more than anyone else in the world, had died at 89, and the car seemed to reflect my sadness about that. Just as I wanted to bring Aunt Kay back, I wanted to restore Old Blue. I had spent all my teenage summers with that car, washing and waxing it, riding with Kay and her dog up to her cabin in the mountains. So in no time I had it worked over and repaired, stripped down and repainted so it looked as good as the day Kay got it when she was 65. It was a solid work horse of a car, but when it became mine in 1996, it had only 20, 000 miles on it. It only had an AM radio, and the air conditioner didn’t work, and it had an enormous steering wheel on it, because it didn’t have power steering, and you needed a big wheel to fight with just to make a left turn. I had to get rid of it when I moved back to Florida 16 years ago, but I sold it to a very earthy older couple who recognized my emotional attachment to it, and they swore to continue to baby it. I believed them, and maybe that car is still on the road today. It wouldn’t surprise me. Cried when that one was driven away, too. Gimme a break; I was only 44.

I did a really stupid thing when I finally ended it with my ex. I had money from the sale of our house that was burning a hole in my pocket, and in 1992 I went out and bought a 30 year-old Cadillac Sedan deVille.  I had grown up fascinated with fins. Every day we drove my father to work past the Cadillac dealer in downtown Tampa, my face was pressed against the window in utter amazement at the enormous cars that looked more like rocket ships than automobiles. the seville lasted for a year, and it was a blast to ride in. It was like my first car in that it, too, was freedom that could be bought with money. It was my celebration car. More like a boat on a still lake than a rocket or car, the Cadi could easily fit in six of my co-workers to drive to lunch. It got seven miles per gallon. It was more of a novelty car than a car I had an emotional attachment to; kinda like my ex. One day a light on the dash that read “GEN” came on, and it was confirmed that the generator was kaput. This was before the internet lit up and buying parts became as easy as owning a keyboard and a credit card. Needless to say, NO ONE on planet Earth wanted a 31 year old bomb that could only run as far as the battery would take it. I placed ads in the local paper, the Washington Post, and Autotrader. I even paid to have a photo ad flash on the screen at the local multiplex, while the deVille sat, deflated, in my garage. I was at the point where I was going to investigate having the fins made into a piece of furniture and scrapping the rest of it. But finally, a collector bought it for $400, “because he wanted to do me a favor.” I’m sure he managed to do himself a favor after he restored it. He also called and bitched at me because the car blew out a tire while he was towing it back to Timberville. Too bad. Buyer beware. It probably didn’t want to go with him. No tears, but god, what a joy to drive. My freedom hadn’t disappeared. It was just time to move on.

Which brings us to the car I abandoned today. Ten years ago I bought the second brand-new car I’ve ever owned. I even had a color choice, and I chose the red one, because it was the same red as my first car, the Volkswagen. It was (oh, god, I’m using past tense already!) a Honda Fit with a 5 speed manual transmission and so much fun to drive. It had great pickup, and the front wheel drive made it so maneuverable. I’m a little sentimental about the Fit, because it was last car I bought before Bill got cancers (yeah, that’s plural). It’s the car I had when we got married. It’s the car we took mini vacations in, and it has never, ever, in ten years given me a mechanical problem. We had to get rid of it because due to Other Bill’s declining peripheral vision, we had to buy him a car with blind spot detecting mirrors and a backup camera. It’s like driving a supercomputer. (And I thought my first car was technologically superior because it had an 8-track AND a cassette player in it, and had two door speakers and Chris Sestile’s old stereo speakers in the well behind the back seat. No one else and pseudo-Quadrophonic in their cars.)

The Fit was a tough sell as well, almost as tough as the Cadillac. Seems no one on planet Earth wants a car they have to manually shift. Plus when you sell a car outright today, you have to sort out the scammers who will “send a company to pick up your car, because I’m in a wheelchair/the army/jail, and I can pay by Paypal if you just click this link…”

Then there was one guy who communicated by text only. Wanted to come by after work last week at 11 pm, because he could get a ride then. I figured he was either psychotic or young. He later agreed to coming this morning, but he’d have to Uber.  Not my problem, so the date was set. I had been victim of so many fraud attempts, and I was still skeptical, so my buddy-cops made sure I was followed during the test drive just in case anything funny happened. This will most likely be the last car I sell outright. I’ll just have to suck up the low trade-in values henceforth. I knew the kid was going to buy it the minute he sat in the driver’s seat. He was a skinny boy with tattoos, and he smoked. He didn’t smoke during the test drive, but still. He drove too fast, wound the gears out too far, and he rode the clutch.  I felt bad subjecting my little four-wheeled friend to second-hand smoke and rough handling for the rest of its life. I don’t know why I feel that way. It’s not like it’s human.

But sometimes a car is more than just a car.

I didn’t cry when the kid drove off, cigarette dangling from his mouth. But the day’s not over yet.

Gimme a break, I’m only 61.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Fear and Loathing in Big Lots

Other Bill and I, sadly, spend more time than is probably healthy at Big Lots. It only makes sense for two people who are both gluttonous and cheap. Why spend $6.50 on two bags of vanilla Oreos at Publix when you can get three bags at Big Lots for less? Sure, the expiration clock is ticking faster on the Big Lots cookies. And it’s quite possible when you open the bag that all the Oreos will be crumbled into a sticky powder, but that just makes the cookies more amenable to serve as an ice cream topping instead of its intended use as a milk-dunking dessert.

It’s not rocket science to figure out why some things end up at Big Lots, otherwise known as the next-to-the last-stop-on-the-retail-train-to-the-dumpster. Things like chili con carne in a mylar envelope, and pumpkin-banana cake frosting were obvious losers. Hormel and Pillsbury are only human. Not every idea in the world food market will catch fire and sell like Starbucks. And things like half-priced giant bottles of Advil that expire tomorrow are only a natural for the store of the desperate and destitute. It’s always hit-or-miss with Big Lots. You never know what they’ll be stocking, which makes that the ultimate draw of the store. Maybe this time I’ll find those tins of anchovies for 60 cents again! Something that you can always depend on Big Lots to stock, however: Pop Tarts. That’s right, they always have a huge assortment of flour-encrusted jam slathered with jawbreaker icing. At radically-slashed prices.

At our Big Lots there is always one area in a dark corner under the $2 gallon jugs of white vinegar known as the Reduced For Quick Sale shelf. As if it’s not bad enough that you end up in Big Lots, this shelf always makes me a little sad. Products there look like they have been in trailers where domestic violence is the norm, and they have been returned to pay for bail. Boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix that look like they’ve been hit with a rolling pin. Dented little cans of Young and Early peas. So heartbreaking. Wrinkled, dirty bags of egg noodle crumbs. Sometimes I have to buy stuff from there just to show it a little love for products that lived a tormented life of abuse. Give the food a little dignity, for crying out loud!

When we were there recently, one of the first things I noticed was a huge box of rainbow-colored unknown chunks that looked like those tooth-cracking candy hearts with love notes on them. Only these were much smaller and asymmetrical and had no messages on them. They were in clear plastic cellophane bags with matte-finish, generic black and white labels. It looked like something that fell out of a government-issued military MRE.

Their labels made them seem almost as pathetic as the Reduced for Quick Sale items, but not quite. First of all, they were placed in the front of the store looking so colorful they caught the customers’ eye when they first came in. But you’d think they would have some fun and jovial name like Zip-Zaps! or Krazy Konfetti! (exclamation points not optional.) Sadly, whatever happened to these things, they never even made it to the marketing department. The label read, simply, “Asst Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits.” Not very appetizing, is it? And a far cry from creative.

Naturally I had to buy a bag, because a) I didn’t have my phone to take a picture of it, and b) They were only $1.25. And besides, you never know at Big Lots. You turn your back on something they have half a store’s worth of, and in no time, some kid who ran off with his mother’s SNAP card has whisked every one of them out of the building. You know this because the next day there’s a picture of a parti-colored, comatose child under a headline that reads, “Boy, 9, in Hyperglycemic Coma after Marshmallow Bit Overdose”, which would have been more eye-catching if it had instead read “Zip-Zap Overdose.”

So I blame the marketing department of these Bits. I picture a scenario where the national sales director gets on the phone.

“Look, Biff. I’ve got 620 thousand units of this rat-bait rotting in the warehouse. When are you going to get your marketing guys to come up with a goddamned name for them?”

“Just as soon as we can hire another marketing director, Maurice. You didn’t hear that Kevin emptied his desk and walked out without notice last week?”

Maurice does a face-palm and pops a Xanax. “This is the third marketing director in 5 months! Why can’t you keep someone in the job, for Chrissake? What was it this time? Pay, hours, or benefits?”

“Neither,” Biff says. “He wanted his office painted a different color, but corporate denied it.”

"Asshole Millennials," sighs the sales director.

Three weeks later, and Maurice is on the phone to Biff again.

“Goddammit, I told you months ago to get a name for these tooth-rotters, and—”

“How about Tooth Rotterz? You know, with a Z,” Biff suggests.

“What? Are you stoned? You can’t call them that. They’ll never sell. Mothers will be livid.”

“Yeah, Maurice? Well, what about Screaming Yellow Zonkers, or, or Fizzies, or Trix? What about those, Maurice?”

“Look you little weasel. No Tooth Rotters. With a Z or an S. Either you come up with a name by close of business today, or I’m just going to order them labeled ‘Assorted Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits’, and you’re gonna take the fall for their failure.”

And then, six months later, they end up at Big Lots, with a dwindling “Best if Used By” date.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to buy wholesome, fresh snacks at Whole Foods, and purchase name brand toilet paper that doesn’t dissolve on the first wipe, and cranberry juice I’m not pressured to drink before expiration, and drugs I’ll consume without symptoms because somebody should take these!

Until then, there’s Big Lots.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Senior Survivor

I’m not proud to admit to this, but I have watched every single episode of Survivor since its premiere on May 31, 2000. To my credit, it is the only reality show I have watched with any kind of frequency, because I find celebrity-based reality shows just as repugnant as those pageants that feature five-year-old Jennifer Lopez wannabes in hot pants. I also have no interest in shows that feature, for instance, poor white trash fat kids with racist, child-molesting parents, or Donald Trump.

I also take pride in the fact that I am not one of those statistic-spewing Survivor addicts who can name all the players from every season, where each season took place and accurately recall the theme of every season. I would rather use that space in my brain to remember jingles from fifty-year old cigarette commercials (“Chesterfield Kings taste GREAT…because the tobaccos are!”) Because that is far more important than being able to recall, say, a list of my current medications to an ER doctor.

And speaking of that, when Survivor first came out, I always thought I would make a pretty good contestant. My carpentry skills were sufficient enough that I thought I could build a decent hut, and I was a pretty good distance swimmer, so maybe back then I could have placed in a few challenges. And I was pretty secure with my masturbation skills that if I tried hard enough, I could start a fire. But those days are long gone. I’m too old to keep up with the young, strapping contestants on the show. People my age are seldom selected—for this show, or anything, for that matter. We are just too much of a liability. Not to mention the fact that we aren’t going to win any beauty contests.

Therefore I’d like to propose to the producers of the show Senior Survivor. Naturally it will be an abbreviated season, because no one my age is going to last out in the wild for a month. Two days without our Ensure shakes, and we’d be snatched up by birds of prey. Frankly, we’d be lucky to last a week. So the rules are this: Seventeen seniors are taken to a remote island somewhere in the Pacific. Each day, people will be eliminated by a majority vote or by breaking the rules. One person each day will be exempt from the vote by winning an immunity challenge, and people will also compete for reward challenges.

Day 1 reward challenge: Contestants will put together a jigsaw puzzle that reads: Outwit, Outplay, and Outlive. The person who completes the puzzle first gets a Lipitor and takes 9 others to be fed, leaving 7 to fend for themselves. 

Day 1 immunity challenge: The ten players will be given a lavish dinner of soft, high fiber foods.  Before dinner is served, Jeff tells them that anyone who talks about an ailment, a malfunctioning organ, hip replacement surgery, their bouts with cancer, their bowel movement status or how neglectful their children are will automatically be eliminated. This takes out all ten players out right off the bat. And then there were seven.

Hidden somewhere on the island is an immunity idol that a contestant can play at tribal council at the last minute to prevent him or her from being voted off the island. Sadly, no one can find the idol because none of the contestants can remember where they put their glasses.

Day 2 reward challenge: The seven remaining players will have to stand on one leg on a small block of wood in the blistering heat. The person who outlasts all the others wins a lifetime membership to AARP. Due to their declining ability to maintain their balance, all challengers fail the task of standing on one foot, even in the sand, thus giving the producers more time to air commercials for Cialis, pro-biotic yogurt, Depends, Super Poligrip, and the Neptune Society.

Day 2 immunity challenge:  Contestants are shown where they left their glasses, and each receive an iPhone 7 and are told they have 30 minutes to set up their email accounts on the devices. If no one is able to do it, immunity will be given to the one who can perform the most difficult task. After a half hour, the immunity idol is presented to the guy who manages to turn it on.

On Day 3, a special delight for the contestants has been arranged. It’s Family Day, and contestants are treated to a visit from their loved ones. Children of all the contestants have been invited to fly in to this remote Pacific island to visit their parents. Sadly, all these children are too busy with their own careers, children, and Facebook to make the trip. One contestant is lucky enough to be visited by his gay grandson, but due to jealousy among the other bitter parents, he is voted off the island that night at tribal council.

On Day 4, a special two-hour Senior Survivor airs. Tension mounts when two contestants are evacuated by the medical crew: one for a broken hip, and another who threatens suicide if she can’t go to the beauty parlor and get her hair done. The final four contestants must eat live worms, raw snake meat, uncooked bat livers and other putrid local delicacies. Surprisingly, all four consume all the snacks without even flinching. Their sense of smell and taste have long ago subsided, and everything these days tastes like wet flour. So in order to break the four-way tie, the players must make fire from flint and dried palm fronds. This takes up an hour and forty-five minutes of airtime, and each player at different times must be treated by the medical staff for exhaustion. Nevertheless, the episode wins the Nielsen ratings for the most watched show in their time slot. Jeff Probst runs out of discouraging things to shout at the contestants, so he tosses two Bic lighters a couple of yards away in the sand, and the two contestants who grab them and set their fronds on fire first get to stay for the last show.

On the last taped show, the two finalists must plead their cases to the jury members who will decide which one will be the sole survivor. The older of the two says, “Plain and simple, you should vote for me because I’m older than Nell over there.” Nell, in retaliation, speaks up.

“That is exactly why you should vote for me. Because I’m younger, I am more likely to live long enough to make it to the live season finale in a couple of months.”

The highlight of the evening comes with the jury member who had his grandson visit spews out a vitriolic rant, accusing both contestants of being “jealous bitches,” and says he’d rather vote for Satan than either of them.

The scene cuts to the live show in Studio City to a packed theater. Unlike Family Day, relatives of all the contestants fill the seats, because CBS has cut off their internet access, and they have nothing better to do. Jeff Probst dramatically reads off the votes, and announces Nell to be the Sole Senior Survivor.

The following night on the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley announces that Nell lost her million dollars to a bogus IRS phone scammer.

This comes as no surprise, because no one wins at Senior Survivor. 

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