Stationary Objects

I was stopped not so long ago for the 5th time in the past 9 months by a cop in the greater Charlotte region. In each instance I sit behind the wheel accused of an identical crime, this being – scofflaws and hooligans beware! – the unholy, unimaginably heinous act of…driving around with a Stationary Object In Violation Of The Law.

To put this into context, let me explain that I am talking about a motor vehicle violation. Four of these five stops have resulted in my being issued a ticket in the amount of $215 apiece. But I haven’t suffered a speeding ticket in 18 years of driving, and no DUIs, no other offenses outside of one debatable at fault accident in 2000. A couple minor mixups involving the current insurance laws. That’s it. Yet this driving around with a Stationary Object In Violation Of The Law, now, this is some serious business.

So what am I talking about, specifically? This would be the matter of the all-important Vehicle Registration. Yes. In this state, the Vehicle Registration is tied in with the Yearly Inspection, the dog and pony show that has determined, thanks to some mysterious, faulty switch in my car’s mainframe for a year and a half now, that my Check Engine light will randomly flash on, though I can’t establish why, and therefore I am to be denied passing the Yearly Inspection.

Never mind that I have receipts from three different mechanics who can’t quite figure out what’s going on, here. It might possibly be related to a computer chip known as the Powertrain Control Module, but even they couldn’t guarantee shelling out $1500 for the chip would solve this problem. Never mind that I, living in central Iredell County, have been driving to downtown Charlotte for work five days a week for almost two years now with this infernal Check Engine light on, though it doesn’t seem to affect the operation of said vehicle in any measurable way, shape, or form. The car that is functioning fine otherwise, aside from this annoying orange light and the matter of the $215 tickets.

My objections to this nonsense flow out in two primary directions. The first of these is the one most folks would probably latch onto immediately, that being the fact that I hardly ever see anyone being pulled over in the Charlotte region for any reason whatsoever. I actually sent a “tip” to the police department’s website shortly before this began that they could sit and nail people all day long doing a good 20 MPH above the speed limit on I-77 northbound between exits 19 and 28, netting enough speeding tickets in a month to pay an officer’s yearly salary. But in the past 9 months, the only person I’ve seen pulled over along this stretch, despite driving amongst countless idiots who’ve ridden bumpers at 90 and executed triple double lane changes back and forth, from left lanes over the exit ramp and back again, all in the space of a quarter mile…has been me, for the unthinkable act of this expired registration.

Which brings us to the second point. I refuse to believe, until confronted with evidence otherwise, that even the most out of control driver in Charlotte has been issued 4 tickets in the last 9 months. Where are you, sir, and if you exist, could you please step forward? I would be highly charitable to describe the average driver in this region as anything above extremely bad, but the police never seem to pull anyone over. So what are we really talking about? Why has this Expired Registration attracted so much attention, more by far than your garden variety, doing 90 in a 65 speeder?

The reason is, on the surface, that this is a Stationary Object. We can all appreciate the thought process here: “durp? Merp! A merp durp durp!” And by now everyone has seen that guy making the talk show rounds, turned down for the police department as a result of scoring too highly on his IQ test. But these considerations are by and large not even what I’m talking about. Common sense would, after all, seem to indicate you’re much more likely to stumble across a broken window than to witness someone breaking it. No, the real issue at hand is a philosophical one.

We have now reached a point where your average trooper doesn’t care about some jackass zipping past him doing 80 in a 65. These same dudes who are pulling me over for expired registration were, chances are, sitting right there observing as countless impatient morons flew by, and didn’t consider it a big deal. Might even go as far as to say that hassling a fellow over a little excessive throttle is akin to nitpicking, almost like a nagging mother and therefore nothing with which any self-respecting officer would concern himself. Whereas, see, once you get into a past due registration, now you’re talking about a blatant disregard for official government paperwork, son.

As a society, we’ve reached the point where certain hot button topics closely resemble emoticons, or cave paintings or totem carvings, in that they have become such weighted symbols, that their simple appearance extends hysteria far beyond the ground that any rational discussion could cover. You’re probably never going to see a campaign for Drinker’s Rights gain much traction, or the raising of the legal blood alcohol level anytime soon, and this is surely all for the best; but at the same time, I don’t get why that topic induces such frothing at the mouth, even if the perpetrator in question is ten miles from the nearest vehicle (or on a tractor, or bicycle, or in the drive thru at McDonald’s) to the extent he’s incurring massive fines and jail time and his life is basically ruined before he’s technically caused any harm to anyone…and yet any nimrod can weave in and out of lanes at breakneck speeds, riding everyone’s ass, slamming his brakes when an abrupt course shift requires it, flying up exit ramps with an eye to divebombing back into the general population, but the worst he is ever going to acquire is a figurative slap on the wrist and tiny fine. It’s because no one has conjured a catchphrase to describe this phenomenon, no zealot has stepped forth to create a movement. So nothing happens to him until after he causes the 12 car pileup. But of course by then he and everyone else affected would be a Stationary Object.

We get so numb that we fail to even stop and consider what these nuances even mean anymore, or feel helpless to combat them when we do. What is a car registration, anyway? What purpose does this serve, apart from lining the DMV’s coffers? The license plate announces to the world specifically which vehicle you are driving, and the VIN is there if the need arises to dig a little deeper. Anyone with the power to run your plates, safe to say, can pull up any and all relevant information right along with it. A valid driver’s license indicates that I am personally fit and entitled to be behind the wheel. In many states, this one included, you are required to have your car inspected on a yearly basis (another fee, of course) in order to certify it is road ready, and to top it off we here in the Carolinas also must cough up an annual sales tax, on our paid off jalopies of decreasing value. Still we wander like zombies to the bureau’s window, or click buttons in a stupor online, and fork over our hard earned cash for The Registration, a ceremony replete with flags and a brass section. Nothing must trump The Registration, even if those entrusted with protecting and serving us are the only ones capable of grasping the true significance of The Registration, an arcane tradition far beyond the understanding of us simple folk.

If only we private citizens – the ones allegedly in charge, ha – were able to return the favor for traffic related Stationary Objects that we found unacceptable, to set tickets floating upstream, so to speak, in a two way torrent. One recent trip from Charlotte to Asheville was especially maddening, though illustrating in perfect fully rounded fashion much of what I mean. I’m already resigned long past the point of railing against the traffic situation around Charlotte itself (shorthand version: jackass mayor pushes a pointless downtown trolley through that nobody else wants, citing a “budget surplus,” earns himself a pretty hysterical Secretary of Transportation appointment for the one thing at which he was absolutely the least qualified; trolley naturally runs over budget, as lawmakers now cite a “budget deficit” for actual roads that people use, and approve toll lanes to pay for these; meanwhile gridlock appears more atrocious by the day), yet the drive beyond this point represents a flawless microcosm for all that we find maddening.

Even allowing for the inevitable afternoon crash that had traffic plugged up for ten miles along I-85 (surely caused by one of those lane weaving numbskulls inspired by having read How To Drive Like An Impatient A-Hole and Arrive at the Same Time Anyway shortly before taking the wheel) and forced a diversion to some state route, my trusty little map app was still touting an arrival time three hours distant, and yet it still took almost five. Much of this was due to a puzzling stretch along the mountainous wilderness of I-26, where we are first treated to a single digital sign bearing the legend CONGESTN AHEAD, and nothing more, as traffic creeps to a virtual standstill. An hour later we are still wondering what this is all about, in the absence of any additional explanation. Finally, within eyesight of a spot where the interstate closes down to a single lane, there is at last one orange sign with the familiar wordless image advising us of such, the two black squiggles of a straight line, then another curved one merging in its direction.

Would it not have made much more sense, considering that there is apparently no budget for further signage, to switch the two existent ones? And can we not collectively fine whoever is in charge of this idiocy?

But I believe I glimpse the root problem, and can offer a simple solution before the dialectic devolves into a riot. The only reasonable explanation is that whomever is responsible for these decisions must not be a motorist him or herself. Nothing else makes sense. And so perhaps we should appoint fellow drivers, people who have actually been behind the wheel of an automobile, to posts requiring these monumental verdicts. If doubting these claims, consider this beauty of a sequence as we approach Asheville:

 

  1. Sign posted that “Max Safe Speed” is 50 MPH
  2. A couple of those orange signs with squiggly lines indicating that the lanes are about to zigzag.
  3. The first definitive sign announcing that we are nearing interstate 40…in half a mile
  4. Followed by a sign explaining that interstate 40 westbound was in fact to be accessed via the left hand lane.

 

As any motorist can plainly see, massive brake slams soon ruled this region. Bebopping clowns with no regard for any of these advisories may have in fact skated through better than any of us, well versed in these antics. If you did happen to induce a fatal collision, though, well then naturally this would have been your fault, and not that of those posting such stupid Stationary Objects. But even if guilty of such, be glad you weren’t doing 7 MPH drunk on a riding lawnmower along the shoulder…or driving around with The Registration out of date, in which case you’d have some serious infractions for which you must atone.

 

 

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Dynamite River

One summer our family piles into the car for an extended vacation with my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Rob, the most adventure seeking, outdoors oriented couple in our extended bloodline. Rob in particular is a complete maniac who, aside from more standard fare like taking us hiking up mountains, or boating and water skiing, had taught my brother and me how to snorkel dive – including a lesson on slipping underwater, that you block the tube with your tongue and then blow the water out upon surfacing – and the fine art of jumping from cliffs, though neither of us were as brave as the triple-backflip-from-thirty-feet-up type maneuvers that Rob routinely busted out.  He had also led all of us on a camping expedition deep into some native woods once, where our site was ravaged by bears in the middle of the night while we huddled inside our tents, listening with rapt attention, the adults occasionally risking a glance outside.

But by far the most notorious of our adventures with these two would be this hot August afternoon, when they decide to take us inner tubing down their favorite mountain river, a horseshoe shaped affair that ends not too far away from where it began. Jackie drops off five individuals and six tubes – the last having been saddled with a duct-taped cooler full of beer, stocked and modified by the two adult males in this party – as she then takes off in their SUV  to meet us at the rendezvous point. The sky is nearly cloudless and the water high, a perfect setting for this idyllic country ride.

You can probably guess what happens next. A freakish ocean of grey and then black sails into view overhead, blotting out the sun. A wind kicks up, the air perceptibly becomes much cooler and, worst of all, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reveal themselves a little more closely than perhaps we would have preferred. Mom is freaking but Dad and Rob, who are both, it should be noted, pretty much half crocked at this point, remain nonplussed by this sudden rain and nature’s pyrotechnics. Later claiming they only said so to avoid a mass panic, these two are in fact telling us that in cases of lightning, “the water is the safest place to be.”

Mom isn’t buying this nonsense and climbs out of the river. She starts hopping alongside the bank barefoot, negotiating the rocks, briers, and general overgrowth which is, as a rule, not especially conducive to travelling sans shoes. Upon seeing this, I decide this seems like about the best idea  I have ever heard, and join her in navigating that shoreline. My little brother, meanwhile, appears torn, but apparently decides to trust that the men know what they’re talking about, and remains in the water with them.

After walking what feels like the distance of the Appalachian Trail and back, we eventually encounter a dilapidated shack of a house, where this disheveled old coot is sitting upon his back porch, which faces the water,  rocking in a chair. Frantic to exit this mountain pronto, we ask him if there’s any quicker way off of this river.

“Nooooooo,” he cackles, “not unless you got a stick a dyn-ee-mite!”

Needless to say, nobody thought to pack that in the cooler this morning. But just as suddenly as it blew in, the storm mysteriously passes, at last, without any casualties. By the time we arrive at the pick up spot to a waiting Jackie, the sky looks like it had when we first arrived, as though nothing ever happened – although we all have such a chill in our bones that upon arriving back at their house, we make Rob build a blazing fire just to dry us out.

Classic Stereotypes

Some of this seems like material a standup comedian might have covered at some point, and if so I apologize. I’m not trying to steal anyone’s observations here. But it recently occurred to me that there are certain patterns one runs into repeatedly out there in the retail universe, too many to dismiss as mere coincidence:

1. Express Checkout Line Cashier: is always slower than an IV drip of molasses. In fact, she would appear to be the slowest cashier on the floor – a real head scratcher, unless maybe the store manager figures to balance things out by putting faster cashiers on the longer lines. Actually, I suppose you couldn’t have the slowest cashiers on the normal lines, because that would be an ever bigger disaster. So this one sort of makes sense, except it completely defeats the purpose.

2. Guitar Store Employee: I won’t remark here on this demographic’s basic personality template (i.e. unrelenting smugness), but would like to take this opportunity to note their incredible telepathy. As in, how they always know what you really want, but – befitting their pomposity – will always do the complete opposite. If you’re just browsing, somehow you have 8 employees hovering over your every move; when you genuinely need something, however, you can’t find anyone.

3. Electronics Store Salesman: Completely incapable of muttering the phrase “I don’t know.” To do so sends them into serious convulsions. Instead, attempting to avoid this, they will recommend some weird and unnecessary piece of equipment with utter conviction, which you will take home and only then discover is of no use to you whatsoever. This subset would almost make sense, if such a stance were taken with sales commissions in mind. But their mental foibles extend to 99 cent fuses and $2.49 cords just as much as higher end items, plus you are going to turn right around and come back to speak with a more knowledgeable employee anyway, as you return the junk they sold you, which only makes them look all the more idiotic.

4. TV Weathermen: Always complete fruitcakes. Why? What is the connection? I must be missing something here.

In Praise Of Old New Years

We create our own holidays. In a country obsessed with cramming a holiday into seemingly every date on the calendar, this is as true here as it is anywhere else on the globe. Valentine’s Day wasn’t enough, we had to have Sweetheart’s Day to liven up our mid October doldrums; starved for drinking ceremonies, the Fourth of July, some Saint named Patrick, and really pretty much every other major event with the possible exception of Halloween weren’t excuses enough to get sloshed,  we had to cannibalize Mexico for a Cinco de Mayo that means nothing to most of us. Yet I’m amazed that amid this flurry of brand new concoctions, some real, some postmodern winks of an eye – Festivus, anyone? – and the moldering heap of your Flag Days and your Guy Fawkes that we never really rallied around much, you are left with the truly significant players in this holiday arms race for possession of our hearts and our memories…and yet even so, their importance in our lives does not always stack up the way we think.

Maybe the pecking order is different for everyone, and I would never suggest that any of the following are trivial. But for whatever reason, differentiating one Christmas from the next, or one Thanksgiving, or for that matter most of my birthdays, is a thoroughly impossible task for me. They just all seem to mostly run together into one gigantic blur. For some reason, however, aided surely a great degree by the DNA coding of which two teams are playing, I can remember exactly what I was doing for nearly each of the past thirty Super Bowls – no small feat, considering I am only 36. This is also true, too, for at least the last fifteen New Year’s Eves, occasions I can recall in precise and at times mindboggling detail, except I have no theories to explain just why this should be.

Some were wild and some were not; some were held in the same location with pretty much the same people as the previous year’s, and still I could differentiate them. I never would have listed New Year’s among even the top half dozen of the most important dates of the year for me, until this thought hit me just a day or two ago that, considering the evidence at hand, it indisputably is. Considering this, my initial thought was to detail them all in chronological order, or possibly a countdown or up to the all time #1. Who knows, at some point maybe I will. But for now energy only permits me to recount one of them, a vintage offering from 2008. It was just my second New Year’s after moving to North Carolina by way of Ohio, and while a far cry from some of the craziest, it always sticks out in mind as possibly the most bizarre. I know it comes up the most in our collective conversations, which again is saying something: I couldn’t tell you what Christmas was like that year, and neither could anyone else.

It starts out innocuously enough, or should I say as innocuous as such an occasion can. Early on, I remember sitting on a futon in the garage watching my brother and some of his friends play pool – we had the door wide open for some reason, letting in the bracing cold – while inside, his girlfriend’s parents, who were like the local Sonny and Cher – were roping all takers into the karaoke machine they had rigged up in our living room. When I had first moved in, I became the fifth roommate, initially a madhouse yet slowly whittling down from there; a few months after this particular party, my brother would tell his girlfriend that certain friends of hers were no longer welcome at our house, but for now all these outlandish characters are still coming around. Plus, unlike the previous year, I had actually bothered to invite a select handful of people from work and was sweating who would show up, in particular this chick I had recently become completely infatuated with.

Sonny and Cher split after an argument concerning what he may or may not have been partaking of, and whether it was wise considering his “heart condition.” We thus went from hearing literally eighteen different renditions I think of that one Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow duet for some reason, to having no music at all outside of the old VHS tapes of rock concerts we’re broadcasting in the garage . Fortunately, I just happened to keep my drum set fully assembled in our living room back then (don’t ask), which would come into play later. For now, however, we take their departure as our cue to move some furniture and set up the poker table as well. Right around this time my parents show up, and a couple of their friends, and then Victor, Robert, and Justin from work.

Robert always seems to emerge as the unintentional comic foil in a number of these tales. He made me promise not to circulate pictures and videos of this night around on the internet, so I’m reduced to writing a story about it. But nothing too major or shocking really happened – he just seemed to be on a mission to get as drunk as possible on as great a variety of alcohol as he could in the shortest amount of time. Victor’s laughing maniacally and filming every minute of it, while my mom feels compelled to take pictures. In an hour’s time, he is passed out on the couch. A great deal of the rest of us are stuffing our faces in the kitchen on this amazing food Brandy’s mom made before taking off so abruptly – feta stuffed mushrooms,  a variety of these pinwheel shaped sandwich thingies, et cetera – as the house slowly swells with people approaching midnight. There are kisses and toasts at the magic hour all around.

Things actually at first appear to be dying off an hour or so beyond this point. We’ve got a card game going, and though professing his skill for weeks, it’s apparent that Justin grasps the rules of poker and not much more, as he steadily loses his shirt. All along, I have my eye on the clock. Brandy’s the closing bartender at her place of employment in Mooresville tonight – it has changed names often and I can’t remember what it was called then – and as I was in fact not drinking, it had been decided that I would go pick her up.

Somehow this turns into a complete debacle. At first Dad insists that I drive his Suburban there for some reason, and then after talking me into that, he reasons that it only makes sense for him to ride along, since this is his car and all. From there we springboard into literally every walking person in the house cramming into this one vehicle, with me at the wheel, all except for my mother, who remains behind to crash in Daniel’s bed. At the bar, meanwhile, of course the plastic hats and party horns are out, and somehow Dad talks my brother and his friend Roy and me into to singing karaoke – we sound okay on Comfortably Numb, but thoroughly butcher The Weight. At least most of the patrons are blasted out of their minds and are paying us no mind.

Of course by the time it’s all said and done, we wind up closing the bar down and somehow its owner, who was this middle aged Greek dude, and his obnoxious girlfriend wind up following us back to the house in their car – she’s in her early twenties and has this loud, shrill voice, goes by a name like Ann-Marie or something which is probably made up. Once home, though, it’s like my New Year’s is just beginning, as I start drinking alongside everyone else, and it turns out the Greek guy knows some guitar, as my dad hops on the drum kit and starts rocking out. The video camera begins making its rounds again. Mom, briefly summoned awake by the commotion, said that when she opened her eyes, every cat in the house was surrounding her on the bed “like Children of the Corn or something,” and licking their chops, regarding her as if dinner – I’m not sure how many felines we had in the house at the time, but considering it reached its apex with fourteen cats and probably averaged about six or seven, we could understand her shivering terror.

At some point the instruments are set aside, the radio comes on, and another poker game is introduced. For whatever reason, too, the lights are dimmed down to ridiculous levels, making it difficult to glimpse your cards, though nobody bothers to turn them back up. Ann-Marie (or whatever her name is) complains constantly about the light, leading Dad and I to insist with a straight face that my brother is Amish and doesn’t believe in electricity. She just so happens to be either so wasted or so moronic or both to buy this, and I even go as far as rummaging around in the pantry until I find some candles. We hear her whispering to some people sitting beside her, “he is! he really is! he’s Amish!” and we are laughing our heads off at her idiocy. Unfortunately, she also has this tendency to just blare at the top of her lungs a random line of whatever song happens to be playing at this point, like the Violent Femmes’ American Music. When by sheer coincidence she and I sing the same part at one juncture, she stands up and shouts, “YES! I LOVE THIS SONG!” and gives me a hand-stinging high five.

Her middle aged boyfriend has clearly had enough. “You want to marry her? Please, by all means, marry her,” tells me, palms extended in her direction, sounding so weary that he might weep.

By now, it is nearly daylight. Perhaps predictably, Ann-Marie and the Greek start getting into a shouting match, and then she storms off into the night. When Daniel attempts to restore order, Brandy and her friend Nicole start yelling at him for some reason, then march out the front door after her – this is the last we see of them this night/morning. With the lights up, the Greek sits around commiserating to us about what a wack job she is, and then drives home alone. The rest of us crash out one by one, my dad in his truck sometime after sunrise.

Like I’ve said, it’s unclear to me why these New Year’s Eves stand out so sharply in contrast to all other holidays. Of course, it’s unlikely you would forget such a bizarre night, regardless of what day of the calendar it fell upon. But even the just concluded one of two days ago, which found me working for the first time on this night since I think 1997, a night spent doting on rich, drunk, non-tipping a-holes in the country club lounge where I sometimes work, is on one hand unexceptional, yet at the same time is forever far more vivid than the theoretically more important Christmas. And I’m just not sure why this is, except to say that the air circulating on New Year’s is filled with an electricity missing every other night of the year, and that we truly do make our own holidays. There’s just no explaining, perhaps even to ourselves, what experiences will ultimately mean the most to us, or why.