Bland Theft Auto

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 21.21.24I’ve stolen two cars in my life. One was a pink Rambler.

So much for street creds.

The Rambler belonged to a co-worker. A former co-worker.

We worked together at a sheet-metal stamping plant on the West Side of Cleveland. One Friday, after we cashed our paychecks, he invited me to come along on a road trip to Tennessee. He often drove there on weekends to visit family.

His only relative in Cleveland was his father, a seedy old bisexual. I knew that because he hit on me in the men’s room at the plant. I doubted that his son knew.

By the time we reached dead man’s curve on I-71 — the one out by the airport — the check oil light came on. We pulled over and raised the hood. The engine was so hot it glowed.

“It uses a lot of oil,” he said.

We got off at the next exit and bought four one-gallon cans of bulk oil.

It took forever to get to Tennessee, stopping every fifty miles to refill the crankcase.

We had an OK time with the relatives. They treated me like family and fed us well. And we drank prodigious amounts of whiskey.

Come Sunday night, he announced that he wasn’t going back to Cleveland.

“Fuck that,” I said, and grabbed the car keys.

As far as I know, he never returned to Cleveland. I kept the car and ran it into the ground, which took all of a month.

The other car? Another story for another time.

 

This is another installment in my Autobiography series. In case you hadn’t guessed.

 

 

 

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Maya

mayab&wQuiet moment. Saturday morning lap time.

To think that just a month ago, with tears in my eyes, I held Maya in my lap, dreading that it would be the last time. We found her in the bathroom, unresponsive.

She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor or a stroke — probably the latter. But she has come around and seems to be doing OK.

Treasure those quiet moments.

We Got Our Kicks on Route 6

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At right, the ’62 Ranch Wagon at our East Harbor campsite. That’s my godmother, Aunt Doris, laboring away.

U.S. 6 is the longest highway in the country, stretching from Massachusetts to California. For me, the part of it between Cleveland and Sandusky was the highway to heaven.

That was the route we took every summer for our two-week vacations at East Harbor State Park on Lake Erie’s West Basin. For many of those years we made the trip in Ford Ranch Wagons. Dad had three — all company cars — a ’59, ’62 and ’65.

Those vacations offered a respite from city life. They were relatively inexpensive vacations. Campsite fees and boat rental were cheap. Even the day we spent at Cedar Point was affordable, thanks to promotion sponsored by one of the local bread companies. As I recall, admission was $5 a person on bread days. (It might have been Laub’s bread.)

Everything about our vacations was magical to me — nonstop fishing, pickup baseball games, moments of solitude when I’d slip out in the mornings and explore the woods and waterfront.

Because of those experiences, I resolved to one day live where other people vacation.

Mission accomplished.

 

This is part of my series Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles.

 

 

 

Slaughterhouse 5.1

Used to be that, when us river rats wandered into town, the fine folks of Dresden rolled up the sidewalks, hid their women and livestock, and bolted their doors. The manager of a convenience store where canoe trippers went to replenish ice and beer supplies posted a sign at the door that read “ONLY ONE CANOEIST AT A TIME ALLOWED IN THE STORE.” So I was a little apprehensive years later when – during a two-week-long canoe trip to Marietta – they offered me a key to the village.

What changed? By then – the early ’90s – the Longaberger basket factory had been revived and the town was booming. Bursting at the seems, actually. It had become a Mecca for Longaberger devotees. Busload after busload of them descended on the Muskingum River town south of Coshocton, Ohio. Many of them were middle-aged housewives who sold Longaberger baskets in what some alleged was a pyramid scheme. The whole scene kind of looked like an Aunt Bee impersonators convention.

The devotees came to shop or eat at the spiffy shops and restaurants in the village – about 50 in all – or take guided tours of the basket factory.

The Dresden I knew in the ’80s was like any other southeastern Ohio ghost town. Dilapidated vacant storefronts lined the main drag. The few residents who hadn’t moved out looked haggard and pissed at the world. Especially outsiders like us.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that, in the early ’90s, I had contacted businesses in towns along the river so I could fax my weekly columns to the Columbus Guardian during my journey. A little grocery store in Dresden was one of them. I also contacted local officials and asked if I could camp in the park along the river.

That’s when they offered me a key to the village. They granted my request and invited me to shower or work out at their state-of-the art gym in their refurbished park. After paddling and dragging a canoe all the way from Brinkhaven (water levels were low that year) and portaging around two dams, the last thing I needed was another workout. I did take them up on the shower though.

I also accepted their invitation to tour the basket factory. I mentioned the tour in one of  the columns I wrote during my canoe trip. The tour included a walk along a balcony overlooking the shop floor. Below, basket assemblers who were paid piecework, labored frantically. These folks had been rescued from jobs that paid minimum wage and offered an opportunity to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

Still, it was humiliating for them to have strangers watch them work all day long. The looks on their faces showed it. They clearly resented us and I don’t blame them.

For many of the workers, their prosperity would be short-lived. A few years later, Longberber’s pyramid scheme came tumbling down. The downfall was attributed – in part – to a recession and dwindling demand for the costly baskets.

I also mentioned in my Guardian column a banner at the plant urging employees to work harder – to hit their target. The banner depicted a WWII military plane. At the time, I wondered whether the workers or management appreciated the irony in light of the firebombing of Dresden Germany depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five.

Today only a dozen or so of Dresden’s shops and restaurants remain open. A few vestiges of the boom years remain. And, so far, the convenience store manager hasn’t posted a sign limiting the number of paddlers allowed in the store at one time.

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A recent photo of Dresden’s riverfront park. Although the Longaberger basket boom has passed, the town remains better for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Poor Man’s Laptop

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This photo — taken by Kitty Palm-Houser during my first canoe trip to Marietta — was used as a column header for Hoot, a humor tabloid I once published.

My first laptop computer consisted of a 1950s-vintage Royal portable typewriter, a Rubbermaid Action Packer storage tub, and legs made out of PVC pipe.

I carted it more than 150 miles down river from Brinkhaven to Marietta, Ohio. From  campsites along the river, I wrote my weekly columns for the Columbus Guardian. I had prearranged with businesses along the way to use their fax machines to send the columns to the paper. One of the businesses, a golf course in Beverly, Ohio, had never used their fax machine to send out faxes. They only used it for golfers to reserve tee times.

This was in the early ’90s, when laptop computers were relatively new technology — and had the battery life expectancy of a geriatric fruit fly. They also were impractical because transmitting text would have been impossible. Especially from southeastern Ohio. Although things have improved, three years ago you still couldn’t get a Verizon signal on the Little Muskingum River.

Of course, my poor man’s laptop had apps. There was Word Imperfect — i.e. typewriter paper and Wite Out. I also had a standalone dictionary app — a paperback version of the American Heritage Dictionary. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I put my clustered fingertips on the page and spread them out, I couldn’t make the type larger. It was on this trip that I discovered I no longer had 20-20 vision.

Sadly, the manuscripts no longer exist. But I still have the ol’ Royal portable. With cellphones costing $900, I just might press it back into service.

’72 Ford Torino – A Classic Crap Car

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’72 Torino in my favorite color – monkeyshit brown.

My downstairs neighbors in Cleveland Heights suspected I was crazy. When they looked out their window to see me hopping around in the snow and undressing, that confirmed it.

In the early ’80s, I was the plowed owner of a 1972 Ford Torino. Yes, plowed. It was one of the cars I owned in a period of my life when I was drunk or stoned much of the time.

It might have been the Torino that drove me to drinking. It broke down frequently and making repairs inevitably proved disastrous. That fateful day in Cleveland Heights was no exception.

Generally, changing a thermostat is a simple operation. Not with the Torino. It probably didn’t help that I was under the influence at the time.

I unbolted the thermostat housing without letting the pressure off at the radiator cap. In those days, I wore cotton long johns. (I wouldn’t discover the wonders of wool until the ’90s.) Hot coolant spewed out like Old Faithful, dowsing my torso.

Panicked at the prospect of the hot green coolant wicking down to my genitalia, I stripped off my clothes on the spot … only to look up and see my neighbors at their window, staring in disbelief.

It gets better.

After going upstairs to change my clothes, I went back to work. I pulled the thermostat housing, removed the old thermostat and carefully applied the gasket cement and gasket. I replaced the lost coolant and got behind the wheel to start the Torino so I could check for leaks.

As I put the key in the ignition, I looked on the seat to my right. There was the new thermostat — still in the package.

This post is part of the Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles series.

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

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To this day, I honor the memory of Azadi.

This is probably not a popular opinion — especially these days — but I grew up with a sense of duty to my black brothers and sisters. I felt obligated to make amends for the evils my forefathers visited upon them.

I make no apologies for it.

In 1973, I reached across the Cuyahoga River, a symbolic divide in a segregated Cleveland. Responding to an article in the Muntu Drum, a black-oriented student newspaper published at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus, I sought out an East Cleveland woman who called herself Azadi.

The article said Azadi was running a busing program, taking families and loved ones of prison inmates to visit them. The program was based on mutual respect and self-respect. If you couldn’t afford the meager fare, you could pay your way by volunteering your services to the program. That could be in the form of washing vans, helping with paperwork, running errands, whatever. The article also mentioned that Azadi desperately needed drivers. I found my calling.

For the next 14 years, until I moved to Columbus, I served as a volunteer driver. Those duties were later expanded to fleet maintenance and – at times – Azadi’s chauffeur. Azadi suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually claimed her life. Still, she managed to run the program, earn a college degree and inspire a lot of us to serve our community. In the early ’80s, I drove her to classes at Cleveland State University, literally carrying her at times from the van to her wheelchair or into and out of her East Cleveland apartment.

The motto of the People’s Busing Program was “Keeping Families Together.” The idea being that, if prison inmates could maintain contact with loved ones, they would be less likely to re-offend after being released.

That philosophy wasn’t limited to inmates; it helped keep my family together. My late father, who had instilled in me the values of fair play and respect, later joined me as a volunteer driver. The time spent together driving the inmates’ wives, mothers, and children to visit them at Ohio prisons strengthened our bond.

My dad and I also became a part of Azadi’s family joining them for social functions and, finally, in mourning her.