The United States of Fred

It’s been a week or two since I did a blog post. This is due to a feline-related tragedy during which I tripped over a cat in the dark, and landed on my laptop. This, while probably leaving its internal organs intact, destroyed the monitor, and if I boot up that computer now, I get a screen which looks something like part of a post-modern art exhibit.  So I’m reduced to a tablet, and yesterday I spent more money than I was comfortable with on a Bluetooth keyboard for it.  It makes blogging (and most other things) considerably easier than trying to write something with just the tablet.  The kitty which was the proximate cause of the tragedy has been affixed to the wall with duct tape so that this never happens again.  Her pitiful cries are getting fainter…

But that’s not what this is all about.  No, it’s about this:  If Mr. and Mrs. Vespucci had not named their son “Amerigo,” and instead had named him, oh, Fred or something, things would be vastly different in this hemisphere.  This the sort of realization that hits me when I’m on the road, and come to the end of an audiobook, with no more downloaded.  By the way, audiobooks are the greatest invention for long-distance drivers since beef jerky.  They provide entertainment, keep me awake, and to a certain degree quiet the voices in my head.

Anyway, back to the Vespucci question.  What prompted this particular thought is the alarming number of businesses whose names begin with “Ameri.”  In just the past week, I’ve seen AmeriGas, AmeriStaff, AmeriBank, and  AmericInn, to name just a few.  A quick Google search turns up hundreds and hundreds more.  There’s AmeriBag, AmeriDoc, and maybe the worst, AmeriDream.  It’s a mortgage company.

I wonder what the motivation is in naming a business this way, particularly when said business is local or regional, and has no national reach.  Is it born from some odd sense of patriotism?  Or is it just AmeriDumb or AmeriLazy?  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a flag-wavin’ patriot.  But I still don’t get it.

But that’s what made me think about the Vespucci family, which long ago, unwittingly, named two continents.  I wonder what may have happened if they had named their future cartologist “Fred” instead of “Amerigo.”  For one thing, we’d have North and South Fred.  We’d have the United States of Fred.  And we’d have FredGas, FredBank, FredStaff… you get the picture.  Sure it’s a dumb picture, but it’s a picture nonetheless.

Amerigo "Call Me Fred" Vespucci

Amerigo “Call Me Fred” Vespucci

Then there would be “Fred the Beautiful.”  And from Iran, we would hear the chants of “Death to Fred!”  And that would just make everyone giggle.

Okay, I guess I’ve pounded that stake into the ground as far as it will go.  I could write more on this, but it would just deteriorate (if it hasn’t already) into complete AmeriCrap.

In our next installment, I’ll explore why the sentence, “Hiring Smiling Faces” gives me the creeps.  Or maybe with that, I’ve already said enough on the subject.

At Least They Left The Light On For Me

(Pasco, WA) —  One of my favorite times during these cross-country school bus delivery trips is going to sleep. I check into a motel, have some supper, crank up the A/C and hit the sack. After a 600-mile day, frequently in a non-air-conditioned bus, I love to crawl under the comforter, and read for about an hour before drifting off.

Beautiful Pasco Washington, as seen from the Motel 6

Beautiful Pasco Washington, as seen from the luxurious Motel 6

At the end of this trip, I delivered the bus, and since my flight home isn’t until tomorrow, I found myself in the Motel 6 in beautiful Pasco, Washington.  I checked in a bit earlier than usual, and immediately cranked up the A/C.  And out poured hot air.  Not uncooled air — HOT air. This isn’t one of those usual under-the-window units found in most rooms.  It has an actual thermostat on the wall.  So I called the front desk and explained the situation.  The nice desk lady said she’d find me a room in which the air was properly conditioned.  She checked 3 or 4 rooms and they all had the same hot-air problem.  Finally, though, she located a room on the other side of the building in which the air conditioner was actually conditioning the air.

But then, she decided to test the TV remote because, she said, they’d been having problems with the remotes.  It worked fine.  But the TV didn’t work.  The only channels that were even watchable were the local ABC affiliate, and Univision.  So the maintenance guy came up and jiggled the coax in the back of the set a few times… and said he couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t work.  Nice desk lady then offered to move me to yet a third room.  But I declined.  I figured I could either see what’s on ABC, or try to figure out what they were saying on Univision. But I don’t care anyway.  Nice desk lady asked me at least four times if I was sure I could get along without the TV.  I kept hoping she’d knock a couple of bucks off the room rate, but no such luck.

It occurred to me recently that since the end of last year, I have spent very few nights sleeping in an actual bedroom.  When I’m in High Point, I’m still living — temporarily, I fervently hope — in my sister’s den. Probably an equal number of nights have been spent in hotel rooms.  I generally read some travelers’ reviews, but don’t put much stock in them.  I usually have the feeling that the people who write most of them are probably naturally grouchy, and get the kind of treatment they dish out.  Many reviews talk about the “rude” staff.  But I can say that never once has anyone been rude to me.  In fact when I arrived quite late at a hotel in Laramie, Wyoming a few months back, and after a little normal banter, that nice desk lady invited me to come back to the lobby later to sit and talk.  Which I did.  We sat in a couple of nice leather chairs, and learned each others’ stories.  It was great.  Of course, being on the road all the time gets pretty lonely, and I’m starved for conversation.

Sometimes the reviewers come up with legitimate complaints, but I think that, by and large, they’re people who are never satisfied with anything.

I generally stay at the lower-priced chain motels: Motel 6, America’s Best Value Inns, Rodeway, Red Roof Inns… places like that.  And I rarely have a negative experience.  And if I need to call about something — like an air conditioner that just spews hot air — I’ve always been met with a quick response, apologies and courtesy.  But I think that has something to do with the way I treat people myself… do unto others and all.

Early next week, I’ll be taking a bus to Maine.  Haven’t been there for years, and I’m looking forward to it.

So despite the AC and TV issues here, I’d stay in any Motel 6.   The price is certainly right  And they left the light on for me.

(Bozeman, MT) —  Once again, I’m driving a school bus across the United States.  This should come as no surprise, because, well, that’s what I do. I woke up this morning in Kadoka, South Dakota, home to Badlands Petrified Gardens, one of the state’s numerous old-style tourist attractions.  Many of these, according to the signs, are “Rated #1!”  By whom they are so rated is never mentioned.  But Roadside America describes the Petrified Garden as “…a grassy compound, hidden from non-paying customers behind a high fence, dotted with petrified wood stumps, logs, and piles.  Unfortunately, as usual, I can’t stop to enjoy the wonders of stony stumps, logs and piles. I have a school bus to deliver.

... and look, honey! It's air conditioned!!

… and look, honey! It’s air conditioned!!

Sometimes, though, I see things that are inexplicable, at least to me.This morning, for example, I was heading west on I-90.  About 20 miles east of Rapid City, I saw an enormous cloud of smoke ahead on the right.  As I got closer, it looked like a fireworks store had exploded.  There was a fairly sizable fire in back of a metal building… and every couple of seconds, a colorful display of rockets or something would shoot skyward from the blaze.  I was a bit tempted to take the exit that obviously led there… but realizing immediately that would be poor judgement on my part, I kept going.

A few months ago, in a money-saving effort, I switched from Verizon to Boost Mobile as my cell phone carrier.  It does save money, but in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and parts of Nebraska, there’s no cell coverage at all.  I made a mental note to Google “Rapid City, fireworks,” to see what showed up.  What showed up was nothing. Not a word.  So, as usual, I have no idea what that was all about, and probably never will.  I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

Tomorrow night I’ll spend in Spokane, if all goes well.  I don’t think there are any exploding fireworks stores or anything petrified on the way.  But there will be something I won’t be able to explain.  There always is.

A Step Toward Normalcy

(High Point, NC) — There’s one thing we adults generally take for granted. Okay, there’s more than one. But this is the only I’m thinking about right now. That’s the freedom we derive from readily available transportation. And for the past couple of months, I’ve been without that.

It’s been difficult. Life since November has been difficult enough: There was the unexpected implosion of my marriage. A return to Pennsylvania and one last shot at broadcasting – which didn’t work out. Then, on the way back to North Carolina to resume school bus delivery and writing, my beloved 2002 PT Cruiser suffered a terminal illness. I sold it for $200. Since then, I’ve been living in my sister’s rec room, borrowing her car when it was available, driving school buses across the country, and generally hating my life.

I’m not around town enough to get involved in normal things like church activities, community theater, and other stuff I love. Dating has been out of the question, because, well I live in my sister’s rec room and I have had no car. For the same reason, I haven’t been able to get into a counseling regimen, which is something from which I could very much benefit.

But today, I took a baby step. Actually, it’s more than just a baby step, it’s a big, big step: I bought a car. When I got here, my goal was to buy a “beater” car, just to get around. I thought maybe a 15-year-old car… maybe $3000… and even then, I thought, because of my credit history, I’d have to get my sister’s help as a co-signer. It all sounded unpleasant and, frankly depressing.

A couple of months ago, though, because I no longer have anyone to pick me up at the airport and drive me home, I had to find transportation from the Charlotte Airport to the Amtrak station, so I could take a train home. You can fly into Greensboro/High Point, but it’s generally much more expensive than flying into Charlotte. And then, when I got back to High Point, I had to find a way from the train station back to my sister’s rec room. Not a lot of joy in that.

And that’s when I discovered Uber. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a ride-sharing system which employs private drivers, using their own cars. It’s completely smartphone app-based. You establish an account, based on a debit card, a credit card, or PayPal. When you need a ride in a city served by Uber, you simply go to the app, and request a car. Generally, within just a few minutes, a car shows up. You already know the name of the driver, and what he or she is driving. And they know your name as well. You can call or text the driver to give exact instructions. You watch on the GPS-based map where your driver is, and exactly when he or she is arriving.

It’s a brilliant concept… and as you might expect, traditional cab drivers absolutely hate it.  I love it. I’ve spoken with a good many drivers, most of whom are making a good bit of money. They set their own schedules, drive when they want to, and find it to be lucrative.

Uber requires drivers to have a car that’s no older than 2006, a nice car with no damage. Drivers go through a background check, and since no money changes hands, it’s much safer than driving a traditional cab. Not only that, but since Uber has all its riders’ personal information, one would have to be pretty stupid to try to rob an Uber driver.

In any case, it dawned on me that if I could somehow get a late-model car that met Uber’s criteria, I could use my downtime from shuttling school buses to drive for Uber. And if all I made from it was enough to cover car payments and insurance, that would be fine.

So, miraculously, considering my less-than-perfect credit, I was approved. The car I bought today (a 2010 Honda Fit) was named by Consumer Reports in 2010 to be one of the two “Best Value” cars of the year. It’s probably the best car I have ever bought. And I did the research – I’m paying a fair price. No accidents on its record, and a nice, clean CarFax report.

New wheels: better than the old wheels

New wheels: better than the old wheels

Anyway, this is a long-winded way to say that it looks as though, after wallowing in depression and despair for the past five months, I have finally taken the first step toward living like a grown-up again. Yes, I’m still living in my sister’s rec room with the cats, but now the light at the end of the tunnel does not seem to be an approaching train.  There’s something about one door closing and other opening….

There are a number of people who have helped in ways that frankly astound me. I will not mention any more than that here; I have already sent my sincere thanks personally. But there are more who have offered encouragement, love and moral support on this awful road… and I offer my sincere and eternal gratitude to you.

I have a long way to go… but finally, I am feeling some real hope.

Thank you so very much…

Stuck in Hickory

(Hickory, NC) – Yup. Still here in Hickory, North Carolina. In our last episode, on Saturday, the bus I was taking from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon, broke down in Hickory, NC. That’s less than a hundred miles from home.

At first, it looked like it would be a quick fix, and that I’d be back on the road in a day or so. But I’ve been at the Red Roof Inn, waiting. Hickory seems like a ­relatively nice little town, but I am astounded at how many people here, both men and women, do a perfect impersonation of Gomer Pyle. And I’m stuck with no transportation… I’ve walked to the convenience store up the road a few times… and ordered from Domino’s… but other than that, I’m pretty much confined to my room.

For no particular reason

For no particular reason

This morning, I found out that the part necessary to fix the bus won’t be available for about a week. So my only choice is to get a Greyhound bus back home. This is interesting, at least to me, for a few reasons. For one thing, I have just applied for a job as a Greyhound bus driver. And I’ve been accepted to go to Greyhound training, which won’t happen until sometime this summer, but still, it’s moving forward. The other thing, though, is that except for charters, I have never ridden on a Greyhound bus before. I’m looking forward to it, sort of. I have heard a great many stories about the regular Greyhound clientele. Not that I’m being elitist or anything. Okay, I am.

Anyway, I take the Greyhound back to High Point tomorrow. Then, on Thursday, I will pick up another bus, and take it to Portland. Or Seattle. Or someplace out there. When I return, in about a week, I’ll get back here to Hickory somehow, and pick up the bus here, and resume the trip where we left off.

There are pluses and minuses to this. On the plus side, I’m finally beginning to make some pretty good money. On the minus side, I’m getting really confused. When I return to High Point tomorrow, I am going to meet with a car dealer… and hopefully will be able to afford a car (and it looks pretty good at this point) that will allow me to drive for Uber during my down-time from the bus job. But all this is leaving me a bit disoriented…

There are things about having a regular, sedentary job that are quite comforting, if boring. This is definitely not boring. Lonely, but not boring.

What Could Possibly go Wrong?

(Hickory, NC) – “On this trip, there will be no break-downs,” I said. “On this trip, everything will go smoothly,” I said.

It’s a great big, brand new Thomas school bus – one of those buses with a flat front, more like a city transit bus than a school bus. They ride nicely, they’re fun to drive, and this morning, I started out from home about 6, to take this bus to Portland. It’s a five-day trip across North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. I enjoy this drive, and I’ve done it so often, I can get from High Point to Portland without a map, or GPS. Which is good, because my GPS is still at a bus dealership in Texas.

Nice, great big, brand-new bus.

Nice, great big, brand-new bus.

I started up that bus… it only had 24 miles on the odometer. I even like the way it sounds when you start the engine and release the airbrake. Put my headphones on and dialed up an audio book… all ready to go. I hit I-40, which would be my home for the next 8 or 9 hours… then in Nashville, you switch to I-24, and head north. I had a room booked at the Motel 6 in Metropolis, which is the self-proclaimed Home of Superman.

I got as far as Hickory. Then I noticed something disconcerting: the check engine light came on. I briefly considered fixing it by putting some electrician’s tape over it. That generally works pretty well for me for a week or so. But I could NOT ignore the digital display which, in no uncertain terms advised me to CHECK COOLANT. ENGINE TEMPERATURE 210.

No… NO! In just a few recent trips, I had brake problems on a new bus… the battery cable on another new bus worked itself loose… the tread stripped off a tire on a nasty, smelly old used bus… and this was NOT supposed to happen.

But, well, there we were. There was an exit just ahead, so I pulled off, and parked in the lot of a Raceway convenience store/gas station. I went around to the engine compartment, and opened the door. And coolant was everywhere. It had sprayed all over the engine, was dripping off the door, and was copiously leaking onto the ground, creating a pink puddle.

It was time to start calling my list of numbers. First, to Rob, who owns TransBusiness, the company I was driving for. We discussed what to do, and then I called Freightliner’s roadside assistance hotline (it’s a Thomas-Built bus, but the chassis is made by Freightliner.) The voice on the other end said, cheerfully, “Thank you for calling the Freightliner Assistance number; this is Rhonda – how may I help you.” I couldn’t help it. I said, “Help, help me Rhonda…” She had apparently heard this before.

I gave her the numbers she asked for: The VIN, the body number, my phone number, all that. And she responded that for some reason, she was “unable to mandate the warranty.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. She gave me a number for Thomas, but it’s Saturday, and evidently Thomas doesn’t believe in 24/7 assistance hotlines, because although the pleasant recorded voice assured me that my call was very important to them, they were closed, and I was urged to call back on Monday. I was also encouraged to have a good day. It was already too late for that.

More phone calls, more messages left, and finally I got hold of the West Carolina Freightliner Sales and Service Center, which was right there in Hickory! Not only that, but they work 7 days a week. Take that, Thomas. A few hours later, an enormous wrecker pulled up, because, as I was informed, they don’t do roadside service.

Later that day...

Later that day…

I got a ride in the truck (We’re goin’ for a ride in a big truck!! YAAAAY!) to the Freightliner place. Rob had said he didn’t think it would be anything serious. Probably a hose that hadn’t been tightened enough or something. Sometimes those guys do miss tightening things. On one bus I took to Oregon a few months ago, we discovered that several of the lugnuts were not tightened. So I figured I’d be back on the road in a jiffy, or perhaps the twinkling of an eye. Or maybe a New York minute. I settled into the drivers’ lounge, surfed the web for awhile, even went back to the bus and got some ramen which I cooked in the Official Drivers’ Lounge Microwave.

Then, in walked Mike. He had the demeanor of a doctor who was about to say, “We did all we could… but….” What he actually said, though, was, “It’s a molded hose.” I though he had said a moldy hose, and I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was telling me. But what he was telling me was that a part had to be replaced before the bus could be driven again. And that was not a Freightliner part, it was a Thomas part. And, as we have discussed, nobody’s at Thomas to help on weekends. So with any luck, the part will come in on Monday… but it’s more likely going to be Tuesday before I can get back on the road. This causes all kinds of problems, because I have a flight home booked on Thursday, and there’s no way that’s going to happen

So Mike offered to drive me to a motel… and here I am. Rob thought I should go back home and wait there. But there’s no way to get home except by AmTrak or Greyhound. And I had to cross AmTrak off the list of possibilities, because they don’t have Hickory-to-High Point service. The nearest Greyhound station to High Point is in Greensboro… about 23 miles away, and the fare is $45. So after doing the math, I realized that it’ll just be cheaper and easier to stay here in Hickory for a couple of days.

There’s not much to do here, and I have no transportation. Uber hasn’t arrived here yet, and as I discovered this afternoon, the cab fares are very high. Nonetheless, it’s the first time in months I’ve really had a break, with nothing I should be doing. Actually, of course, there are things I should be doing, but they’re back in High Point. And I’ll be reimbursed for whatever I spend on accommodations and food, so I’m just going to relax and enjoy. Later in the week, I’ll resume the trip to Portland. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Let’s See… Where Were We…?

(High Point, NC) – When it comes to adventure, I’m no Indiana Jones. I’m sort of tepid on the whole idea of a big round boulder chasing me from a temple. Particularly a temple of doom. My bar is set much lower than that. So last week, when I was driving a very used bus from Oklahoma City to Houston, and heard BANG! Whappetywhappetywhappey… I felt no sense of adventure, just a sudden certainty that I would not enjoy the next few hours.

And in accordance with that prophecy, I did not. At 4PM, I was tooling along I-45, about two hours north of Houston when the tread stripped off a right, inside tire. Of course, I immediately pulled over and called my company, asking what I should do. The company has been in business for many years, so I expected they would immediately have the solution. They did not. I carefully whappety-whapped a mile further where, just by the grace of God, there was one of those truck weigh stations. It was closed and abandoned. But there was a stone picnic table and a bit of shelter. And that’s where I camped out for the next three-and-a-half hours. Just waiting.

­

Stranded on I-45

Stranded on I-45

There was, apparently, a lot of negotiation that took place among the various parties who might have been able to do something: the transport company for which I work, the dealership in Oklahoma from which I picked up the bus, and the dealership in Texas to which I was supposed to deliver this sorry-ass school bus that very day.

The upshot of all this is that I waited, on the side of Interstate 45, for three-and-a-half hours for someone to come and get me out of this predicament. And someone finally did. It was Ricky from a tire and road service place in Centerville, Texas. Oddly enough, he was not nearly as happy to see me as I was to see him. That’s probably why he seemed a bit standoffish when I hugged him.

But within 25 minutes, Ricky had jacked that bus up on this little thing that didn’t look like it could hold the weight of a school bus, pulled the outside tire off, pulled the afflicted tire off, put a new (actually used) tire in its place, put the outside tire and wheel back on, and I was on the road again.

Because of the delay, though, I didn’t get the bus delivered until after 10 o’clock that night. And because there was a good bit of road construction in that area, my GPS seemed quite confused as to where the bus should be dropped off. So I drove for 20 or 30 miles in suburban Houston until I found a parking lot full of school buses.

Eureka!” I shouted. Or would have, if I were given to such exclamations. As I took a closer look, though, I discovered that this lot was where some school system parked its buses for the night, and was not at all where I wanted to be.

Within half an hour, though, I did find the correct place, and pulled in. There was a guy there… at 10:00 on a Monday night, doing some mechanical thing to a car. He was quite friendly, and signed the bus in for me. But there were no lights there. Complete darkness.

When I drop off a bus, I have to drop off the Bill of Lading (which strikes me as an archaic term… What on earth is “lading?” And why do you have to have a bill for it?) Then I have to update the Drivers Log Book. And then, take off the license plates (they belong to the transport company, and I need them for the next trip,) pull the DOT placards off the sides of the bus so I can use them for the next trip, clean the bus up a bit, make sure I have all my stuff…. the whole thing can take half an hour.

By 10:30, I was done. Exhausted. Beat. I got my phone out and used the handy app to contact Uber for a ride to the Motel 6 near Hobby Airport. The ride took more than a half hour, because my driver missed an exit. By the way, don’t forget to ask me about Uber. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Anyway… got to that Motel 6.  That’s when I discovered that I had left my GPS on the bus.  In the dark, I had not seen it.  But a call to Southwest Bus Sales confirmed that it’s there, waiting for me.

Tomorrow, I set out on the exact same trip: High Point to Oklahoma City… drop off bus… get used bus… take it to Cypress, Texas. Same days of the week, same route, same everything. I’ll get that GPS and fly home.  Unless there’s a big round boulder intent on crushing me to death.

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