Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Welcome to Amsterdam, Buffy



Nashville, TN, Sept 20th 2002
I recently returned from a harrowing 40-hour journey
to Staten Island and back to buy my new car, a 1989
Volvo 240 DL, silver with black interior, a stately ride
indeed for a ol white bluesman.

It was the silver and black part that got my initial
attention. Plus the fact that Volvos are tougher than
year-old turnips, yet present a n'est sais
quoi...a dignity, perhaps, befitting an humble, yet
worldly and sophisticated image.

I have taken to performing a lot of leaps of faith
lately, and to that end I bought the car on eBay, sight

(WARNING: This feat was accomplished by a man who is
blessed, pronounced with two syllables. Do not try this
without cosmic supervision.)

It is only my second eBay purchase, my first being the
laptop I'm now writing on. I couldn't find a car I
here in the ville for money I had, the locals believing
they do that THEIR car is worth about three times Blue
Book, so I climbed onto the web. I don't think I would
jump off that cliff again, ala Butch and Sundance. But
what followed was an adventure.

Here is basically what the ad said: "I bought this car
from my sister-in-law, who bought it from her
father-in-law, who was the original owner. It runs
great. It looks great. The only thing wrong with it is
a rust spot the size of a half dollar on the trunk lid.
Oh, and the left front turn signal lens is broken. But
the bulb still works." I looked at the description. I
showed the description to my date, Peppermint Patty. I
agonized. She agonized. We agonized together. I
the ad for a couple of days. I made a bid. I watched
the ad.
Now I was committed to the car. Someone outbid me.
I agonized some more. Sometimes on eBay, as a way to
relieve bidder anxiety, you can "Buy It Now" for a fixed
price. I bit the bullet and Bought It Now.

The guy said he would only take a money order or cash.
Well, I'm stupid enough to buy a car on eBay, but no way
was I gonna just fire off hundreds of dollars I couldn't
really afford to some guy I'd never met for a car I'd
never seen. Besides, having committed to buying it, I
had to get it home. This meant a Soulful Trip was in
the offing. Having allocated most of the money I had to
buy this enigma, I had to find a cheap airfare.

Here's a tip:
Do not try to find cheap airfares on the Web. I have
tried over and over and over again, and I always end up
doing what I ended up doing this time: calling an
airline, in this case, Delta.

Calling an airline for a ticket is Russian roulette;
luck of the draw. You will probably get a right cow on
the other end whom you put in mind of her first husband,
that pig, no matter how pleasant you are, and who hates
you and therefore will only find you the four thousand
dollar non-refundable fare from Nashville to JFK.
But you may get a warm, pleasant, gently humorous
feminine voice that simply has to belong to a brunette
beauty who only came to work today because maybe it
be YOU who called, and you DID, and who is so excited
because you're going to go buy a mystery car, and who
find you a fully refundable one-way ticket for one
fifty-six dollars to MacArthur Field in Islip, Long
Island. I got the brunette. We discussed marriage.
name is Sara with no h.


My flight left Nashville for Atlanta at 6:45 a.m., after
I had twice removed my shoes, once at security and again
at the gate, for inspection in case the soles were made
of C4 explosive. They're letting guys named Achmed on
the plane left and right while they got blondie me
off my shoes. But maybe it was because I was dressed
for a trip to New York. I love New Yorkers, but going to
New York with lots of cash in your kick you don't want
to be too prosperous-looking, so as not to attract
muggers. Maybe I was dressed down to such an extreme
that, to the security guys at the airport, I looked like
a dude with nothing to lose.

What it probably was, though, was that, not wanting to
be accused of racial profiling or anything socially ugly
like that, they picked out the one guy they could find
who looked the absolute most like he's lived here
bracketed in the majority(or so it would appear) all his
life and who looked like he really wanted to get alive
and in one piece to where his ticket said he was going.
That is to say, in other words, me. Or maybe it was
just the Grateful Dead T-shirt. Anyway, they inspected
my shoes, although they're pretty unexciting footwear to
say the least, twice.


I flew into Atlanta on a 757 and thirty-five minutes
later left for Islip on a little Canadair jet full of
Long Islanders, all talking Nyew Yowuk. We got into
Islip, and for five bucks a van driven by an Italian guy
named Bobby took me and four other pilgrims to
Station, where I bought a ticket to Penn Station.

Train comes. I get aboard. Lots of Police Academy kids
on this trip, it being a Friday afternoon and they going
home for the weekend. The academy is on Long Island.
Well, Central Islip, Brentwood, Deer Park,Wyandanch,
Pinelawn, Farmingdale, Bethpage, all go by. I'd bought a
Gatorade at Ronkonkoma, I really gotta pee. I ask one
of the cop trainees,
"Hey, they got a bathroom on this train? I really gotta

Looks at me like I'm crazy. I see "Detection of Crazies
flashin through his memory pan.

"Of course there's a bathroom on the train. Where are
YOU from?"

"Nashville, Tennessee."

"Uh-huh. Well, it's in the next car back, I think.
Don't they have bathrooms on the train in Tennessee?"

"Hell, man, we don't even have a train."

Shakes his head, like, Jeez, don't even have a TRAIN?
Whatta buncha shitkickers. I find the bathroom,
lifting up the seat with one of my explosive shoes.

Hicksville, Westbury, Carle Place, Minneola, New Hyde
Park, Floral Park, Bellerose, Queens Village, Hollis go
by. Back from the bathroom, I'm sitting across from...I
think it's a guy, kinda hard to tell, but a pleasant
enough person although a little Gothic perhaps.
Super-long fingernails, sharpened to points, painted
black. Piercings, tattoos. A Goth in Gotham. His cell
rings, the ringer tune being some dark, moody piece I've
heard in horror movies.... dahhhh, dah dahdahh.

"Wha-at? Ma, I'll be there about two-thirty. Jeez, I
don't know, the train's late, one of the tracks is
messed up or somethin'. You want I should pick
somethin' up on the way?"
Answering his phone, the little end of the antenna,
looks like a diamond or somethin has fallen off. I lean
over and pick it up off the seat, hand it to him.

"Thanks," he says, distracted. "Okay, Ma, I'll BE
there. Jeez. OKAYyyy. Bye."

"What time does the train get to Penn Station?" I ask.
He pulls out a schedule, looks at it.

"Looks like it's supposed to be there now. I change in
Jamaica. That's next. You'll probably get there in
about twenty minutes. Okay, I gotta go. Where you
from, anyway?"

"Nashville, Tennessee."

"Uh-huh. Okay, well...See ya."

Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Woodside, all go by.
The suburbs have a sameness to them that is numbing, but
they have been becoming increasingly urban since Carle
Place or thereabouts. Now the train enters a tunnel and
even I, from Nashville, Tennessee (uh-huh), know what
this means: we are going under the water to Manhattan.
The Long Island Rail Road train gets into the bowels of
Penn Station, we must be forty feet down in the bedrock.

It is dark and dank and hot and smells of diesel fuel
and ozone. I follow my fellow commuters up the stairs
to another level, a little brighter. Up more stairs.
Up an escalator we're coming into some bright light...
Suddenly we emerge into Penn Station proper. A jazz
band, guitar, bass, drums and tenor sax have set up and
are playing fusion stuff, sounds like Bethlehem Asylum
only thirty years too late. I am definitely not in
Nashville anymore, Toto.

I go up another escalator and, in the middle of a swarm
of humanity, I am suddenly on Thirty Fourth Street
across from Macy's. The sky is a bright blue, the
weather is unbelievably beautiful, the noise is
magnificent. As are the women. I am overtaken by the
love for Manhattan that I feel every time I am here.

From out of nowhere I think, Fuck you, Osama. This is
MY town.
And I suddenly know that before I get on the Staten
Island ferry to go see the Volvo, there is another place
will go.


It is easy to find Ground Zero. Just go to the hole in
the skyline. It's also near the Staten Island Ferry. I
take the N to Whitehall Street. There are lots of other
tourists(uh-huh) here with me in The City today. I
follow a bunch of them off the N and we proceed to GZ.
Ground Zero has, in the 361 days preceding, been leveled
and sanitized. There isn't much to see, really. An
expanse of turf strangely out of place down here in
Lower Manhattan, surrounded by still-standing bulwarks
of Democracy and capitalism.
Though I never cared for, and still don't, the sheer
arrogance reflected by the building of the World Trade
Center, and esthetically found the buildings ugly, my
blue-collar nature yet always appreciated the fact that
there were real guys and women who actually put the
sonsabitches up there: formers, ironworkers,
plumbers, crane operators, carpenters, rockers, painters
and punchout men. So that my anger toward the craven
asshole who directed and financed the destruction of the
WTC comes from my construction-worker past: to see
something that took so much work knocked down as a
pisses me off.

But my pride in the heroes, my sorrow for the victims,
not all of them Americans, is felt as an American
reborn. And my resolve is not necessarily to bring
retribution, for who's to blame, but to do what I can,
to say what I can, to see that this kind of mindless
is never directed toward us again.
There have been selfish errors in terms of long-term
strategy in the positioning of ourselves in the global
economy, and those errors continue, but that is stuff
for another time... in the meantime, tears down my face,
thinkin Fuck You Osama. I turn away, back to my own
little oil-driven mission.


One thing you just gotta always do in New York City is
eat a hot dog from a cart. I have my Sabrett's just
outside the Ferry Building.

"I spent the last of my last ten cents
On a nickel bag of candy
And if I had just ten more cents
I think I'd take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry"
FRED NEIL ca 1966

The Staten Island Ferry doesn't cost ten cents anymore.
It's free, the nice lady at the information booth tells
me, and at five o'clock, still not having gotten in
touch with my Seller, except once by e-mail so I could
check the VIN number...I don't even have his phone
number, but I have his address, in case I wanted to send
him my money order (yeah, right), anyway at five o'clock
ferry comes and I get on, Freddie's tune in my head, and
fifteen minutes later I'm on Staten Island. I've never
been here before. At least on the land. I'd ridden
the Ferry countless times back and forth and back and
forth a long time ago, trying to figure out what to do,
where to go.

I get off and try to find someone who'll tell me which
bus to take to E. Maine Avenue, a street no one seems to
have heard of before. Staten Island ain't Martha's
Vineyard; it's a bigass place. I still haven't
resolved what I'll do if the car turns out to be a real
piece of junk. Where to go. What to do. Thirty years
later I still dont know shit.

I hustle up the street and find a phone, call home.
Patty has left a message for me that the guy called and
left his number. I call the number. Guy picks up.

"Hey, man, it's Panama. I bought your car on eBay."

"Oh, yeh," he says. "Where are you?"

I tell him where I am.

"Oh, you're on the Island already?" he says, "well, I
got a little problem."

Oh, shit, I think. Here it comes.

"I'd come down an pick you up, but the wife's not home
and I'm with the kids."

"That's the problem? Hell, tell me which bus to take an
I'll catch it."

So he tells me and I go find a bus stop. Bus comes. I
get on.

"How much is the fare?" I ask.

"Dollarfifty," the driver, young black guy, says.

I pull out my wallet, extract a couple bucks.

"Is there a bill acceptor on the bus?" I ask.

"No. Exact change. Where you from?"

"Nashville, Tennessee." I know what's comin next...

"Uh-huh. Well, just sit down. Where do you want to get

"Victory Boulevard?"


Bus pulls out.
Bus gets to Victory Boulevard. I get off.

"Thank you very much," I say.

"Uh-huh. Bye."

I hoof it down the street. Find E. Maine. Find the
house. Knock on the door.
I have resolved on the bus over here that, if the car
even starts I will take it, having no desire to go back
to the City and catch a dogbus all the way back to home.
And I can't rely on getting Sara with no 'h' again if I
call Delta.

The Seller comes out. We look at the Car. The Car is
somewhat less pristine than I had been led to believe,
but I see nothing I can't deal with, bodywise. And, true
his promise, there is indeed a half-dollar-size rust
spot on the trunk lid. And a busted-out turn signal

He starts it up. It runs. It runs good. Here, Jesus,
Gonesh, whoever, I think, take it and run with it. And
fork over the money. I don't even look under the hood.
What a jerk.

"You going back home tonight?" the Seller asks. "I can
show you the way to the Goethals Bridge into New
It does cross my gray matter that this guy is really
anxious to get me out of town.

But I say, "Okay."

And I follow him to the onramp of the Goethals Bridge.
He waves goodbye. It is just now getting dark, about 7
p.m., when I hit New Jersey. Hell ensues. Just about
light in the dashboard comes on or goes out. Or

Here I am in the middle of NewfuckingJersey, which is
all concrete, no telling where the actual road is 'cause
everything's paved, and I'm in a strange car with lights
saying "Check Engine" and "Oil Pressure" and now the
blinkers don't work, and the automatic overdrive light
has come on, which means that the automatic overdrive is
off, go figure, and I just passed a sign that says "Stay
of This Area. If You Must Come Into This Area, Do NOT
Out of Your Car", and I gotta pull over beside some
fuckin NewfuckinJersey warehouse in the gloaming night.
starting to feel like one of the loser characters in a
Tom Wolfe book getting caught up in shit ovr which he
have absolutely no control. I'm fucking panicking here.
And what's worse, I can't even get the hood to release
I CAN "CheckfuckinEngine" for Chrissake. I pull up a
little bit, get out, and look back to where I was just
sitting. There is a puddle the size of Lake Erie. I
under the car. Oil is vigorously dripping from the
axle, having been blown back under the car by the fan. I
am pissed. I am pissed. I ampissed not at eBay, nor
myself, nor even the Seller. I am pissed at the fucking
hood release. I wrench at the sonuvabitch an
miraculously...the hood unlatches.

Now, in the growing dark, I can get my little stage
flashlight out of my fanny pack and look in there. It
is a sea of oil in the engine compartment. I've been
I think, but I ain't gonna sit here in this hole and be
eaten by fuckin New Jersey werewolves or somethin. I'm
gonna get some oil and put it in this sonuvabitch and
I'm gonna drive it Southward 'til it falls apart. And
gonna do the ultimate evil to the asshole who lied and
brought me all the way up here to buy this piece of shit
car...I'm gonna write him a scathing letter.

I get some oil, and after going North on the New Jersey
Turnpike twice, I finally get turned around headed
South, blessed South. South on the NewfuckinJersey
until I'm ready to puke. I check the oil level every
rest stop.
Hmmm. Well, it IS goin' down, but slowly, and it's
STILL the Arabian Sea in there, but maybe there's hope.
gotta get South, and I don't wanna go through no
Delaware bullshit, either, middle of the night, no tags,
no blinkers, nothin any respectable car should have. I
head West on yet another Turnpike, the Pennsylvania,
toward Interstate 81 South, which will take me all the
way to Knoxville. If the car makes it. If I make it.
been up now for forty hours, having been too excited and
anxious to get any rest but two hours or so the night
before. And by now I'm covered in oil. Miles of
darkness and hours of worry go by.

I get off the Penn Turnpike at Carlisle, home of the
Indian School, reminded of my Pawnee carpenter friend
Lloyd Cummings, who learned his trade there. Then I get
on Interstate 81, every Southern boy's dream, a road to
Home. I pass or am passed by a dozen State Police
cruisers this whole trip, but I use The Force: "These
are not the Droids we're looking for..." and they go by.
drive through the night and that little ten-mile-wide
neck of Maryland into the little twenty-mile-wide spur
West Virginia and into Virginia.
At just before dawn, at a little truck stop at Exit 323,
meaning 323 more miles of I81 through Virginia to
Bristol, I pull over, look under the hood, look under
axle, check the oil, crank back the driver's seat, say
prayer and go to sleep.


I have parked facing West, but still, somewhere about
ten in the morning I wake up bathed in my own sweat and
oil that has become symbolic of my failure to behave in
a mature and prudent fashion in shopping for a car.
I get out, making old man groaning sounds, and look
under the car. Pretty big puddle, but only what has
off the engine's exterior during the night, so probably
crack in the block, at least. Which means maybe oil
Crank or cam. Maybe. I apologize to the ecology gods
for my sins. I look under the hood, check the dipstick.
Same level as when I checked it a few minutes after
stopping last night, so Car only slings oil when
Probably seal.
The day looks brighter. Seals can be replaced. A lotta
trouble, though, which is probably why the Seller offed

I add a little oil, go wash up as best I can in the
men's, trying to be oblivious to the stares occasioned
this greasy sweaty filthy apparition coming into the
gas station cum grocery store this morning. I look in
mirror. Yep. Look like hammered shit, just as I

Back in the Car, in the daylight, I familiarize myself
with my encapsulated environment. I have owned a Volvo
before, and this Car, although 13 years newer than my
first had been, nonetheless looks pretty much the same,
which was another reason for buying it. Volvos never go
out of style because there is none to begin with.
Before I drive, though, I will try to solve some
Why, for instance, does the automatic overdrive, which
save me tons of cash if operable, not work? First
first: check the fuse...hmmm, little ribbon on the Euro
fuse seems intact, but what if...I pull it out and
I can see that the fuse, although not burned through, is
corroded at one end. Lean out of the car and grind it a
little bit on the pavement, closest thing I got to
sandpaper, get a little shine there on the end. Put it
back in, start the Car, put it in drive, the arrow comes
on to show that the car is NOT in overdrive, go figure,
push the little button on the side of the stick and
the light goes out. So overdrive happening. Trip
if I make it, will be cheaper anyway.

I set out through the Virginia morning. Mostly where
been is flatland, even the part of West Virginia that
driven through which sticks down off the Eastern
is relatively flat. I begin to sense elevation, know
gonna be going through the Blue Ridge Mountains soon. If
anything will kill the Car, it will be these next three
hundred miles. I have been maintaining a steady speed
fifty miles an hour. Now, with the overdrive alive and
seemingly well, I juice it up to sixty. Today I stop
every hundred miles to check the oil. Sometimes the oil
temp gauge goes out. I get out and jiggle the wire
it comes back on. The temp gauge will tell me when my
engine is in serious trouble, so I don't want to lose

About noon, I know I'm truly getting close to home,
because I see redtails wheeling above in the crystal sky
and, halfway through Virginia, the first kudzu vines
swarming over the hillsides. Ahead, I see the Blue
which I climb without incident.

I get to Wytheville, Virginia, then closer and closer
closer and I'm going through Bristol, Virginia, then
Bristol, Tennessee, same city, different states.

I stop for gas at a little store outside Bristol,
Tennessee, and parked beside two Thelma and Louise
characters eat a can of Vienna sausages, drink a bottle
Gatorade, put more oil in the Car and light a shuck for
Knoxville. I'm pretty sure I know what the Car needs:
seals and attention. The temperature has stayed down,
I've lost no water, and I've only had to put two quarts
oil in over seven hundred miles.

I get to Knoxville, cruise toward Nashville.

I get home at 9:30 pm, 948 miles and twenty-six hours
after the New Jersey madness, get a hero's welcome from
Patty, take a shower, sleep through Sunday.

Monday morning I degrease the engine compartment and
down the front of the engine, Tuesday I buy a new
seal at NAPA, put it in. Put the timing belt and its
ancillary friends back on and fire up the Car. No oil
comes out. I celebrate.

By Wednesday night I have restored the blinkers, the
lights and the automatic doorlocks and gotten my thirty
day temporary tag. I have driven it since, about twelve
days since I bought it, with no hint of trouble.

There is only one way to explain why my purchase on eBay
was successful: blessings. As it happens, I know a
little bit (only a little) about Volvos, having owned
before, and, as I say, they changed little from about
to about 1995. The dreaded engine leak depicted in this
story was one that I was able to deal with, but only
because the problem was relatively near the outside
workings of the engine. Had the problem been inside the
engine or in the transmission, for example, I would have
been screwed, because I know absolutely zilch about that
kind of stuff.
But an oil seal is relatively nothing, if you know what
one is and if you can read a repair book.
It was a crazy, stupid, foolish thing to do, and fraught
with peril as they say, but given the exquisite
of the stately silver Volvo, Dealer BlueBooked at 3600
dollars, bought for 1200 and repaired with a five-dollar
part and some cussing and sweat and dirt, I'm glad I
But it was a sore temptation of Carma, so to speak, and
would never do it again.
I didn't get around to writing the scathing letter.