Off The On Ramp

Michigan has had its share of road rage and highway shootings over the years. Traffic circles were introduced partially in response to that, and have three simple rules: yield to any car already in the circle, drive in the same direction as the other cars, and enter at your own risk. The number of deaths in traffic circles is much lower than the rest of Michigan roadways, but, then, it’s a lot more difficult to shoot a moving target.

One traffic element that is free from debate is that highway on-ramps are for entering the highway, not exiting. There should be no question about which way a car is going on an on-ramp. When you vomit, you project stuff out of your mouth, not take it in. I would understand if someone was shot going the wrong way on an on-ramp. They could argue it was a form of public service, the way deer hunting thins the herd, or NASCAR helps keep rednecks occupied for a few hours each week.

In a Detroit suburb, I confused myself as I navigated a triple traffic circle — that’s three in a row with roads connecting to each one the way Spock the Vulcan has three hearts with veins and arteries hither and yon — and I accidently ended up on the on-ramp to I-23 when that was the last place I wanted to be. To go further south on I-23 meant I’d miss an appointment, and would have to reschedule and return here some other day when traffic might be even worse. I did not want to miss the appointment. In a panic, I stopped the car short of the highway, but a very long way along the on-ramp, and pointed in the wrong direction.

Cars swerved to avoid me as I sat in may car on the on-ramp. I decided to reverse off of the on-ramp. I couldn’t have been more at risk for a rear-ending unless I bent over to pick up my soap in the men’s shower at the YMCA after the Zumba class let out. Cars honked as they swerved around me, but I made it.

I then had to reverse into the traffic circle, entering in the wrong direction from a place no one would expect me to be, and also would have to shift gears to join the traffic flow, all while twisting to look out the rear window. Only Mitt Romney trying to seem like a typical American would have a stranger path to follow, but having reversed myself off the on-ramp, why not continue?

I made it onto the traffic circle. For a moment I thought that people were courteous and understanding, but I know that’s a lie; then I thought that everyone else is a good enough driver to adjust, but I know that people suck at driving; I have settled on two possible explanations: either everyone assumed I was crazy enough to also have a loaded gun, or everyone else is a bigger sap than I am. My money is on the former; only the biggest sap in the country would risk his life so as not to miss an appointment.

The Mos Eisley Cantina in the Pirate City of Kalamazoo on the Planet Michigan

I recently went to a Meijer’s grocery store near Kalamazoo, Michigan. If you’re not familiar, Meijer’s is notorious for carrying everything–it’s a super store with all manner of goods and groceries–and for low prices. It’s also notorious for the clientele it attracts, but they are not all bad. Now I think I’m one of the bad ones.

My wife once went into a Meijer’s on the south side of Lansing, Michigan, and as she loaded our infant son into a shopping cart, two young men burst into the store in a sprint. Two policemen chased them into the grocery section, and out the side door.

I once stopped at a Meijer’s around 1:00 am and, as I walked inside, watched as a limousine pulled up to the front door and two young ladies staggered out of the limo and vomited in the parking lot.

This past Saturday, I went to Meijer’s because I hungered for ice cream. I was running errands, and decided to buy myself a half gallon of ice cream and eat it in the parking lot. It was a painfully hot day in the high nineties, and the ice cream had begun to melt before I found a plastic spoon in my glove box.  I leaned against my car and spooned my face full of Neapolitan, thoroughly enjoying the experience.

A woman pushed a cart full of groceries past me and said, “You are as bad as my daughter.” Judging from this woman’s looks, I thought her daughter might be around my age. (I’m in my forties, but sometimes look younger than that.)

“Maybe she and I would make a nice pair,” I said. “You should introduce us.”

She shook her head. “My daughter is eleven.”

I nodded. “Have her call me in four years.”

* * *

My mistake was that, in truth, I did not say that last line. It didn’t occur to me until several minutes later. I had merely muttered, “Never mind,” and avoided eye contact with the woman.

The Art of Commuting

I have been driving into downtown Lansing, on and off, for 24 years. I have come at the problem from all angles. The roads leading into Lansing haven’t changed much in these past two decades. I am very familiar with all of them.

In fact, I’m fairly certain that the roads follow paths that have been in use for over 150 years, just as I-75 was a trail used by native Americans on their way to buy fudge in Mackinac in the 1600s. The past six years, in particular, I have driven the same road each morning to get downtown. I know the pattern of the lights, the pattern of the other cars, and I recognize certain drivers, poor saps like myself that work for a living.

I had a minor accident the other day, and it was all about the routine. One stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard has three lanes, and widens occasionally with extra turn lanes. I was following a pickup truck, and that truck moved to the next lane to the right. This has happened before my very eyes in much the same way damn near every day for six years.

On this one day, however, the truck miscalculated the space available in the next lane and had to stop short before fully leaving the middle lane. So used to passing cars that have merged out of our lane that it didn’t occur to me that something may change abruptly. I did hit the brakes, but not enough to avoid impact. Hitting a big, heavy pickup with a measly Ford Taurus leaves the Taurus at a disadvantage, and it showed. We bumped the trucks bumper, bet we crushed a small section of the Ford.

I was staring right at the truck but my mind could not perceive what it was doing, much like the experience Newt Gingrich’s wife has each night when she sees old Newt strip naked. You realize there is going to be a wreck, but there is nothing you can do to stop it.

The police arrived and issued me a citation. In spite of the other car being a nuisance and failing to clear the lane in a timely manner, it was all my fault. I blame the Native Americans for not building trails with more hairpin turns. The dangerous curves would help keep me awake if they don’t kill me first, much like going on a date with Sarah Palin during caribou season.


Good Deeds

In the movie “Contagion”, the transfer mechanism that spreads the deadly virus is the combination of touching an infected object and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth before disinfecting your hands. The deadly little monsters are everywhere, it turns out, and our strange habits of self-soothing lead to our demise. Riding the bus had never seemed the best way to travel, but that movie made it downright scary–and I’ve ridden the bus in downtown Cleveland in the 70s.

I have been painfully self-conscious of this face-touching habit in myself, and thought I had it fixed, but the other day I touched myself in a way that was a problem.

Like most people, I touch quite a few things in the course of a day, but I also wash my hands a lot. In winter my hands are red and raw from their essential oils being scrubbed away. In summer, fungus grows on the north side of my palm due to insufficient drying. In general, I wash enough that I think I do a good job of removing foreign agents from my skin. That, and being particular about how, where, and when I touch myself should have kept me risk free.

My problem is that I’m too nice. My neighbor asked me to feed his cats during the weekend, and I agreed. That’s not the part of me that is too nice. I don’t think helping a neighbor is ever a too nice of a thing to do, short of lending them money or inserting a catheter. While I fed the cats, I took pity on them and petted them.

A few minutes later, my right eye started to itch. It itched and itched and itched, and I scratched. Only after a serious session of eye-gouging did I realize I was touching myself inappropriately. Then I also realized that I must have touched myself prior to that, delivering the allergen that so tormented me directly to one of the three most sensitive parts of my body. It’s like waking up with a rash in your privates and the vague memory of dream you can’t repeat to anyone.

My eye swelled up, and only several hours of a cold compress brought relief. The memory of those few hours of discomfort shall stand as a strong reminder to ignore cats and to keep my hands to myself.

Adventures in Misalignment – The Travel Job

My first job out of college, I thought I was lucky enough to be given a job by my roommate’s father, who was a VP at a computer company. I had gotten a degree in Computer Engineering, and I was sure I’d have great fun writing software. But the guy was a salesman, not a software development manager, and he sold me on taking the job. The job was to join a fly-and-fix team for his region, which at that time was about one-third of the continental U.S. If any of the computers in his territory broke, this team went there until it was fixed. It sounded interesting, and he suggested it would set me up well for my career.

My supervisor was a mainframe expert who was transitioning into fixing problems with mini computers and microcomputers. This was before Personal Computers were all over the place. My supervisor had carved out a niche position as this fly and fix guy because he had developed a knack for troubleshooting problems. It was a little bit like the robot psychologist that Isaac Asimov used as a character in his science fiction stories, but instead of cool and deadly robots, we were working with dull and boring computers. Also, the customers were pissed off by the time we arrived. Once there, we couldn’t leave until it was fixed and the customer was happy, or if the customer threw us out, in which case we’d probably have been fired.

To compensate for that potential misery, the fly-and-fix guy worked out of his basement. I had to work there too. He installed one of every type of computer that the company sold. This was a crappy little bungalow in a down-river suburb of Detroit. The computers threw out so much heat that he had to air condition his basement in winter. We sat back-to-back-to-back (there were three of us) with no room to stand up. The only thing worse than working in a down-river suburb is to work in the basement of a crappy little bungalow in a down-river suburb.

The worst part of working there was the coffee, which was made with a drip-brewer-basket type thing. He then insisted on turning off the warming plate and reheating coffee in the microwave, one cup at a time, until the entire pot had been used. We stole the coffee grounds from the company office, so I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let us brew fresh when needed.

Lunch most days was at a Long John Silver–fried fish, fried potatoes, and cole slaw. Considering that we were down-river, you’d think we could go to a sleazy strip club on Telegraph Avenue, but he really liked his fish fried. I gained weight so quickly that by the time my suits were back from the tailor, I needed another adjustment. I even gained weight during trips and bought pants in airports and changed in the men’s room. If I’d known about such things, I’d have worried about being mistaken for a pervert.

Probably the absolute worst part was the implied need to sit with him at a bar and drink beer to talk about the computer problem. For the most part it didn’t matter because we were somewhere in America–Jacksonville, Jefferson, or Joliet–with no friends nearby; we only had each other.

Now that I’m writing this, I realize I don’t even have a cute or clever or ending. It’s just a rant about a bad job. The upside is that it cured me of my desire to have an exciting sounding travel job. The downside is that my next job was kind of worse. But I’ll tell you about it next week.