S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Action Jackson,” Park ponders modes of travel, people imprisoned by screens, and memorizing eulogies.
I just drove to the Bay Area and back; a local friend died last month and his family had a memorial for him in Half Moon Bay. It meant thirty hours on the road but Bruce was worth it: if there’s anyone you should honor in death, it’s a guy who was larger than life.
I could have flown, of course, but between the flight and the rental car the cost was prohibitive. Plus I haven’t been on a plane for a decade and, with luck, will never board one again.
It’s not the flying I mind (though at my height seating is problematic) but the airports themselves. For openers there’s the teeming humanity everywhere: I spend most of my time alone now, so crowds make me claustrophobic.
There’s also airport security. The Feds are more relaxed about pot than they used to be (at least here on the Left Coast), but it’d still be embarrassing to be hauled out of line for weed.
Back when I did fly a lot (I went to Amsterdam a dozen times in the Nineties) I limited my chance of discovery by carrying joints only. I rolled them in one-and-a-half inch papers, then stacked them in a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. (Not only were they the right length, but I’ve marveled at the slogan on the package since high school: Wherever Particular People Congregate.) I’d slit through a bottom corner, replace the cigarettes with a like number of joints, then reseal the paper and cellophane. If done carefully, with an X-Acto knife and Gorilla Glue, the doctoring is barely discernible (even in a scanner).
But my biggest problem with airports is a metaphysical one, i.e. what happens when I finally reach my gate. The sight of everyone around me, even the kids, staring at or speaking to devices while waiting to board, is profoundly disturbing: it makes me despair for the human race.
My biggest problem with airports is a metaphysical one …. The sight of everyone around me, even the kids, staring at or speaking to devices while waiting to board, is profoundly disturbing: it makes me despair for the human race.
Not that I didn’t before, but scenes like that are just so stark. Did the pod people win? If I fall asleep will I wake up a slave to a screen, too? Have I been wrong all along, and self-reflection is a waste of time? I used to say I didn’t own a cellphone (or laptop, for that matter) because—with the exception of once or twice a year—I had no use for them.
Now I’m just being stubborn. (Though how long I can hold out depends on how long I live … everyone will have to carry a device around eventually, I suppose.) I have an old Evergreen State buddy who lives an hour south of here. For years his wife June hounded him about returning to Europe, and when he kept demurring she finally went by herself. She’s a shy, studious woman (who’s never owned a cellphone either), and her husband and I were glad she bought a Eurail Pass.
We thought the best part of European travel was the people you meet on trains. (I was a fan of Finns myself. They were otherworldly characters to me, with their pallid miens, strange language and penchant for melancholy.)
June traveled from Holland to Prague and Vienna via train, and when she returned it was the first thing I asked her:
“Well?” I said. “Did you meet interesting characters on the trains?”
“No,” she said. “Everywhere I went, everyone was staring at their phones or laptops.”
What was I thinking of? Why did I imagine Europeans had resisted the digital apocalypse? So there’ll be no airports or trains in my future. I’ve driven to California and back hundreds of times since I was seventeen, yet the older I get the more daunting it seems beforehand.
It could be what I drive. There was awhile there when (flush with pot money) I rented new cars for the trip, but mostly I’ve gone back and forth in beaters.
This only haunts me on the eve of long drives: if I were ranking the importance of material objects in my life, cars would be at or near the bottom (if I remembered to include them at all). Does the engine turn over? Do the wipers work? Is there rubber on the tires? End of interest.
Though I admit it was nice having a CD player—much less a workable radio—in those rentals, and there’s no question I should have bought a new car when I had pot cash around.
Instead I’m stuck with my twenty-year-old Honda. The front end is smashed, the suspension’s wobbly and I hear new sounds every time I drive it, but it’s still an upgrade because it is a Honda. (I can even take it to Jiffy Lube without worrying what’s happening under the hood.)
Not that it matters: once I hit the Interstate, the world disappears around me. This’d be problematic on the road except I’m a daydreamer by nature (it’s simply tougher for ten-hour stretches).
More of the self-reflection morass, I suppose. Maybe it is overrated, because when I return from long drives it’s hard to remember what I thought about. Pot contributes to that occlusion, of course. I try not to smoke behind the wheel—and certainly limit my intake when I do—but in the absence of music and company I need to change the scenery occasionally. This caution is predicated by cops and forces me to wrestle with my natural impatience.
I settle for mixing Cruise Control with a heightened personal radar. I’m decent at it but hardly infallible, which forces me to adopt my “old-timer” act when stopped. I’ve been pulled over eight times in Port Townsend without a ticket, and I’ve been equally successful in Northern California.
The highway patrolmen in Washington and Oregon, however, are a different breed. They’re such Dudley Do-Rights that they think they look good in those Smokey Bear hats.
It’s why Hobo in the passenger seat was such a boon: he was an irresistibly cute and affectionate dog. In his absence I’ve only my neck brace for a prop. I’d be wearing it anyway, as my neck is sore from a lifetime of lowering my head to listen, read, write, draw, etc. I assume this is a consequence of height but the brace, in any case, forces my chin up and adds “feebleness” to the whole grandpa persona. (Toss in a “Marine Corps” cap and I’d be gold … but I respect veterans more than that.)
So I started out Wednesday morning and drove nine hours to Grants Pass, Oregon. Like most of my trips it was way easier than I thought it’d be: I put the key in the ignition and the next thing I knew I was there.
That being the Motel Six for the evening. I’m fine with their rooms (they’re better than most I’ve lived in), but the thin walls and fellow lodgers are a problem. There’s a preponderance of bikers and hillbillies, both of whom like to shout, drink and smoke outside your room.
This time I had a large extended family on either side of me; the shadow of meth hung over them and only the grandkids had teeth. The patriarch, a wizened, pony-tailed guy, accompanied himself on guitar while croaking the same song over and over, Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy.”
The others ignored him while yakkin’ about trucks and Trump and homemade beer. I know because they were so loud they could have been in my room. Fortunately I had decades in cheap motels behind me and was well prepared. Not only had I brought the best ear plugs I could find, but also a thick cotton headband to wear over them. (It slides off in the middle of the night, but by then, with luck, your neighbors have passed out.)
Not the country boys, though; they were up late rearranging furniture (I could hear it scraping back and forth in their rooms, even as the only portable objects were a table and chairs). The mystery was more irritating than the racket, so I was groggy when I left for Ukiah, California the next morning. It was six hours to the Motel Six there, and after checking in I laid down for a nap.
Only to wake an hour later to the chords of “Long Haired Country Boy.” I walked to the window, drew back the curtain and sure enough, not only was I sharing a route with the clan, but they had the rooms next to me again.
What are the chances? I thought. God must hate me! The window was open and—when I laughed at the trenchant absurdity of it all—one of the hillbillies heard me.
He bent over, spread his cheeks and emitted a long, wet fart, drawing big yuks from the rest of the gang.
The next day I was cruising Silicon Valley in my buddy Ray’s Mercedes. (We were headed to his country club for lunch.) I used to have friends as poor as me but—except for Gumbo—they’re mostly dead or demented by now. Which means there’s some “Grasshopper and the Ant” pathos around my wealthier cohorts but it passes quickly (I’ve never used money or possessions to keep score, anyway).
I have a friend, in fact, who thinks I’m only here to give eulogies. He may be right, but I’m sorry it’s necessary. I don’t understand why so many mourners (some of whom shared a lifetime with the deceased) can’t offer a more coherent narrative about them, much less do it without notes. (I’ve stipulated in my Will that anyone who reads at my memorial should be ejected immediately.)
What about writing something thoughtful and memorizing it? It’s not rocket science; we all did it as kids. I spent a week committing my tribute to Bruce to memory, so when I spoke my words were as sincere as I was.
Memorization is harder as you get older (much less in the course of grief), but that’s the point: you’re honoring a person who, one way or another, improved your time here.
And what the hell, maybe I’m just old and crotchety … it’s not like being an Irish bullshitter is my doing. On the drive back I stopped to see the person who is responsible, my hundred-year-old mother. She lives in a Yuba City rest home and has never been ill (much less suffered menopause), so her hormones are mostly intact. It’s an unspoken family tenet that, since I don’t contribute to her care otherwise, the least I can do is be her sex confidante.
I disassociate as best I can. And this time we chatted a couple hours without her mentioning her nether regions once.
Then Maria, one of the caregivers, walked in. When mom introduced us she said: “Oh! So you’re the weird artist son?”
“Sounds familiar,” I said.
“Well,” Maria continued, “you should be very proud of your mom. There’s eighty other women in this facility and not only is she the only one who doesn’t need help getting dressed and undressed … she never has diaper rash, either!”
“Of course!” scoffed my mother. “That’s because I’ve had so much action down there!”
Almost made it.