Tag Archives: cars

Traffic Jamming

There are times when the words won’t come out, when the fingers punching the keyboard can’t produce what the mind desires.

There are times when excessive commitments from work or social life take away any opportunity to write.

And then there are times when you hear about a nine-day traffic jam in China and the thrill of absurdity and inexplicability knocks down any considerable blogging obstacle.

So, did you hear about the traffic jam?

The one that’s lasted for, oh, about nine days. NINE FREAKING DAYS. People have been caught in traffic. Not moving. In their cars. FOR NINE DAYS.

That’s six days longer than the Isner, Mahut zombie match, longer than “Ben-Hur” and only a day shorter than the average checkout line at Wal-Mart.

And it’s actually still happening, all of it on a road connecting Beijing to inner Mongolia. The armada of cramped, immovable cars stretches for more than 60 miles.

I’ve never been to China, but I’ve read about the driving and the roads and the congestion from the author Peter Hessler. It’s grating. The best way to describe its insanity and mind-warping annoyance is this: Picture the worst traffic you’ve experienced and multiply it by 735, add thicker-than-L.A. smog, an alarming number of Volkswagens, bad tires, and a lack of passion for the well-being of an automobile, and then pretend that in addition to those variables you also have Dane Cook sitting next to you in the passenger seat.

Yeah, it’s that bad. This time it became worse because in addition to the usual problems, there was also construction. Yes, construction. A few oranges cones and cranes have led to a nine-day and counting headache.

Reports say people are playing cards to pass the time and sleeping in their cars. Food comes from vendors who are gouging the unfortunate drivers. But these stories aren’t nearly enough in-depth. This is the biggest event in weird news history. There should be on-the-clock CNN reporting*. So many questions are unanswered.

*Perhaps if there were a balloon boy hovering above, CNN would increase its coverage.

What have people been listening to on the radio?

What if someone left behind his or her cell phone at home that day?

What if you were driving back from a first date?

What do you tell your boss?*

Sorry Bob, not going to be able to make it in today, tomorrow, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, next Monday, next Tuesday, next Wednesday or next Thursday.

What if you had to go to the bathroom?

What if your air conditioner was broken?

At what point did drivers decide to put the car in park and rest their legs. Or is there still a driver out there with his car on, keeping his foot on the brake pedal and thinking that at any second the flow of traffic could resume?

Even without stories, we know this would be an absolute nightmare. Besides Dane Cook, there are few nuisances in our society worse than traffic. A famous scene in “Office Space” displays our cultural opinion.

Either the bald guy or Michael Bolton is on his way to work. I think it’s the bald guy. Anyways, his lane stops moving so he switches into another that is moving. That lane stops. His former lane starts moving. He switches back. That one stops. He screams, he pounds his steering wheel and that, my friends, is traffic.

But this, this Chinese ordeal, isn’t traffic. It’s beyond that. It really isn’t even a nightmare. Nightmares contain bits of reality. This can’t be real. Our imaginations can’t wander far enough to create such implausible, lasting chaos.

I remember getting stuck in traffic for two and a half hours last fall. There was no construction and no accident. It was just plain ol’ Texas confusion! And it sucked. My IPod shuffle saved the last piece of my sanity.

I can also think of the worst traffic I’ve seen. It was in Cairo. A main avenue was fraught with honking cars and a whole lot of random vehicles, like horse-drawn carriages and makeshift buses where people sat on top of the roof and hung out doors and stopped wherever the quote-un-quote bus driver felt like stopping. There was even a guy in a sweatsuit running in the middle of the road. I’d never seen anything like it.

And this is 735 times worse. Drivers in China are living something beyond the throes of nightmare, and the strangest part is they hardly seem to care.

I looked over and over for quotes about this event, about this insanity, and I kept coming across only one.

It comes from a guy with the last name Wang.* Wang is a trucker. He told a reporter that from CBC News that he had been stuck in the jam for the past three days and two nights.

*Really? In a story about Asians, the lone guy quoted has to have the last name Wang.

He told the reporter that drivers had been advised to take detours, to get the hell out of the mind-bending traffic snarl. But he was going to stand his ground. He wanted to stay as long as he could.

“I would rather stay here,” he said to CBC, “since I will travel more distance and increase my costs.”

And unfortunately there are no words to justify that man’s decision.

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Feeling used

Editor’s note: Sorry for the long lapse between posts. Been busy myself and Rustin, of course, is the new blogger extraordinare for Ball Star at kansascity.com. Be sure to check his stuff out there. And, anyways, on to the post…

Q: How many used car salesmen does it take to change a light bulb?
A: I’m going to work this out on my calculator, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The intricacies of human fear are really quite fascinating.

Like most everything, at least part of our fears can be traced back to the human genome. Yes, we are, and have been for longer than any of us could imagine, genetically programmed to fear certain aspects of our environment.

Because it traces back to the genome, these are shared fears, archetypal phobias. We fear bed bugs. We fear the dark. We fear attacks from ferocious wild animals.

They are instinctual and more than that primal. This is because the human genome is obviously ancient.

Several hundred years ago, and longer than that, you damn well better have been afraid of attacks from wild animals and the dark because if you weren’t, you’d probably get killed.

Now, though? The fears seem a little outdated. When was the last time you saw a saber tooth tiger?

Yeah, our genome* needs an update. We should innately fear guns, not buffalo stampedes. We should innately fear texting while driving, not monsters lurking around our dwellings at night.

*Just to so everyone knows, I’m really not this smart. I know all about this stuff because of KU professor Dr. Steven Ilardi. Now, he is smart.

No, most would argue our genome lacks modern fears, and I would agree, except for one: the used car salesman.

It seems from birth we know to despise them, to cringe at the slimy thoughts induced by their very mention. We dismiss them, make fun of them, stereotype them as overweight fast-talking evildoers.

When pressed to think of what a used car salesman does all day, we imagine a wily man dressed in a checkered suit standing over a clunker with a rolled-back speedometer parked in the back lot repeating the line about how an old lady was the previous owner, and, “she just drove it five miles to and from church every Sunday.”

Yet the stories and stereotypes seem to be a way to divert our fear of them. Deep down, we fear the used car salesman. The anxiety seems innate, like part of the genome.

And that brings us to the point, about 300 words into this post in case you were wondering.

Last month, I battled the human genome and attempted to buy my first used car.

*****

Agatha Trunchbull: I need a car, inexpensive but reliable. Can you service me?
Harry Wormwood: In a manner of speaking, yes

BEFORE April, I knew of used car salesman only from popular culture. The thoughts of the used car salesmen as cheap, sleazy and poorly dressed begin early in all of us because of the genome, and are then cultivated through what we see and hear from media.

It starts with Disney. Or, more specifically, with Goofy.

Goofy, you may or may not realize, has a best friend name Pete in the cartoon “The Goof Troop.” Pete likes to play tricks on Goofy. He likes to cheat Goofy. He likes to sabotage Goofy when they go camping.

Pete isn’t just staggeringly different in the way he acts from the earnest, naïve Goofy; he looks different.

His gut protrudes from a rounded, stocky body. His black dog ears point upwards slightly, not unlike devil horns. His chubby, yet raised, cheekbones don’t feature a permanent scowl underneath them but do give the impression that one could form at any time.

Pete, of course, is a used car salesman.

So is Matilda’s dad. He’s the next step on the list, the used car salesman we see once we reach prime tweenage years.

Matilda’s dad, aptly named Mr. Harry Wormwood, fills engines with sawdust and buys a used car for $118 that he sells for more than five times that amount. He and his wife condemn education and reading. He calls Matilda “Melinda.”

In the movie, he’s played by Danny DeVito. He’s plump and shrill and picks from a wardrobe of checkered shirts, checkered shirts, checkered shirts and plaid shirts.

Finally, upon reaching our late teen years or early 20s, we may stumble across “Breaking Away”* and the noble dealer, if you will.

*The greatest sports movie of all time. A must see.

The main character, Dave Stoller, loves biking and the Italian culture. His father, Ray, is a used car salesman. Unlike Wormwood and Pete, he appears to be a loving, fair man – just not around the used car lot.

There’s a scene where Dave starts working with his dad to make some extra money. At one point, a pair of men start pushing a broken-down car back into the lot that they just bought. Dave wants to give them a refund. Ray tries pushing the car back into the street.

He has a heart attack.

All of these characters are funny but add all of them up and an image comes to mind – overweight and money-hungry, uneducated and unrefined, avaricious and opportunistic. If cars existed in the middle ages, you get a feeling Dante would have created a ring of hell entirely for housing used car dealers.

We can imagine that, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a mother or father would tell a child a story about how a vicious animal attacked one of their ancestors so that it would stick, so that the offspring would know to avoid the dangerous creatures.

In the same way, this repeated pop culture portrayal of the used car salesmen sticks. It feeds our innate fear, and before we ever walk into the showroom of a used car dealership we think of the salesmen as caricatures, as jokes.

But we’re also trembling.

*****

“It has been said that ‘The only constant in life is change.’

TOYOTA of Paris sits on the north side of Loop 286, a roadway that may be considered the Champs Elysees of Paris, Texas. Only instead of boutiques and designer fashion, the most famous street in this Paris features clunkers and smelly exhaust from passing semis.

I arrived there early one morning in late March. The used car area wasn’t a showroom but rather a jumble of offices. I expected heads to pop out doors, a handful of drooling men with wispy mustaches to appear already tasting a sale. No one did.

I called out for help. A woman stepped away from her computer. I told her I was interested in looking at one of the cars I had viewed online. She walked out with me and handed the keys.

She said nothing other than some directions to take for the test drive. She almost seemed surprised that I was there. She didn’t wear plaid.

To an extent I didn’t want to buy the car because the people working there didn’t seem overzealous. They didn’t rush out of their offices screaming, “What can I do to put you in one of our cars today?”

A couple of weeks passed. I didn’t buy that car, and I was considering driving my brother’s 2003 Hyundai Sonata a while longer, until it completely eroded from its already withered state.

That’s when I received a phone call from Debby Baxter.

Apparently I had talked to her earlier when I first began my search for the used car. She works at Hilliard Automotive in Grapevine, Texas, a town where there are no grapes nor vines.

She called to check if I was still interested in a used car. Said she could get me a deal. Yep, a deal for me, just for me.

Now this sounded about right. Someone was hounding me and promising something “just for me,” i.e., something for anyone who shows up with a checkbook or wad of cash.

All of a sudden, my appetite to search for the perfect used car and the stereotypical used car salesman strengthened.

But I never made it to Grapevine. I surfed the Web that night for some other deals and stumbled upon a delectable one at a dealership in Bonham, Texas.

I went there the next evening for a test drive and knew I wanted the car if I could get the right deal. The blue book value on the car I wanted was about 10-grand, and the blue book value on my Sonata, the passenger side dented to the point that the doors wouldn’t open from the outside and the windshield cracked, was about $900*

*And if my brother Mike reads this from Seoul, he could be finding out for the first time that his car was in such miserable shape before I traded it in.

The enemy showed up with the keys. He looked and sounded like a person from Bonham, Texas, not a shrewd fast-talker. He worked with his wife, who discussed high school football with me as her husband checked out my Sonata.

There was no major negotiating or arguing. I said what I would accept for my car (double blue-book value) and what I would pay for his (a little less) and we, along with the head of the dealership, agreed.

If, and this is an if and I’m knocking on wood as I type, this car doesn’t break down in say a year or two, I got the better deal. I know I did.

I would say I defeated the used car salesman and humanity’s shared fear of the species, but that wouldn’t be right. The used car salesmen that I dealt with didn’t even put up a fight.

The next day I e-mailed Debby Baxter. I had told her that I would stop by to test drive a car in Grapevine after she had called me, but I no longer had to because I bought that car in Bonham.

This was the last opportunity for a used car salesman to show their true colors, to justify our fear.

I expected an e-mail of protest, of arm-twisting. I expected her to sweeten the deal or recommend something else, or heck, I don’t know, knock on my door or stalk me for several weeks.

Instead I got what you saw above, that italicized, nearly philosophical quote about change.

Could it be that our genome got it wrong? Is the used car salesman not an evil, tacky opportunist and actually a sympathetic figure that we have misunderstood all this time?

I scanned further down on the e-mail. Debby Baxter had one more thing to say.

“Please keep my number handy – and remember – the only pressure you’ll get from us is the air in your tires!”

Then again, maybe we got it right.

Editor’s note: You may be wondering what type of car I bought. I left that out on purpose. Although most of the nine readers who frequent this blog likely know what I purchased, I’m leaving the story of my new car for another, hopefully soon, post.

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Only in Oklahoma

The ground turns red when the sign standing next to the highway welcomes you into Oklahoma. It’s a noticeable change. You look out the window, and the grass seems to disappear. There’s only dirt. And yes, it’s red.

This happens because the soil is enriched with oxidized iron, something that is common in other regions and states throughout America. Only Oklahoma, though, is synonymous with red dirt. It’s like Roland Garros, the clay there affectionately known as red dirt, minus the tennis and the Paris sophistication, or snobbery, depending on how you see it.

I see it as sophistication. And I see it as snobbery. Paris has both. Oklahoma seemed to have neither.

Really, what does Oklahoma have?

Even as a major fan of the Midwest, I never really held any particular admiration for Oklahoma. To me, it was partially just that song for Curley to sing about, and in it, even he admits that Oklahoma is only OK. It’s not fantastic. It’s not memorable. It’s OK.

Ok-la-ho-ma, OK.

At least, I saw it that way.

I drove through Oklahoma the other day* on a journey that took me from Dallas to Oklahoma City for a basketball game. Requisite signs of meth abuse warnings and finding God before you can no longer be saved dotted the side of the road on the way there.

*Two weeks ago now. Man, really procrastinated on this post.

A heavy rain began falling as I neared the city. This would turn into a blanket of snow and ice that would add misery to the ensuing Saturday evening Kansas basketball loss. It prevented fellow Brew House writer, Rustin Dodd, and I from driving home that night, he to Kansas City and I back to Dallas.

So we waited until the morning. Then I began the long drive back through Oklahoma. My car was shaking.

This, of course, was nothing new. My car had been shaking a couple of weeks earlier on a drive to Austin. I took it to a mechanic, who replaced all the mufflers – said he hadn’t seen any in that poor of shape all his life – and assumed everything would work. Or at least work as well as everything could work for a 2003 Hyundai Sonata that has damage so bad you can’t even open the passenger side doors.

This was an incorrect assumption. It started shaking, badly. Driving in the car, I felt strangely like someone sitting in one of those massaging recliners. At least, I thought, I’ll feel comfortable before this piece of junk breaks down and sends me into the roadside ditch.

But soon I would stop for gasoline. My stretch through Oklahoma was nearly ending, Dallas and hopefully a trip to another mechanic miles away.

At the gas station, I didn’t check the tires. I had just days before, and they seemed full of air, or at least full enough.

This was another incorrect assumption. Minutes after leaving the gas station, the ground made a pop and the smoky, smell of rubber wafted. The tire went flat.

Flat, though, wouldn’t describe what happened to the tire. Holes and gashes zig-zagged through the treads, as if the gremlin from that Halloween episode of the Simpsons latched onto the wheel and went to town.

But I didn’t really care. I’ve had about six or seven flat tires in the last two and a half years. I can change them quickly, not Ralphie’s dad in “A Christmas Story” quickly, but quickly nonetheless.

I popped the trunk, spotted the spare and, after a timely struggle, pulled out the jack. This wasn’t your ordinary jack. It was far worse. It was missing a piece. The lever that allows you to pump the jack, yeah, the most important part, the thing that actually helps you raise the car so you can attach the spare, it was missing.

Oh fudge.

I was in the middle of Oklahoma, and I had to try elevating the car by twisting a small, jutting part of the jack, an exercise that probably permanently damaged my wrist and did nothing. I considered calling AAA or some sort of tow service and called my mom and dad about seven times for advice.

Then a massive truck, no, it was more like a van, or maybe a van-truck hybrid, pulled to the side of the road. A man stepped out.

He quickly removed the type of jack you would find at a mechanic from his vantruck, slid it under my car and pumped it up in a matter of seconds. Two or three minutes later, we had affixed the spare, and I was ready to go, especially after he filled it up using an air canister that was sitting in the back of his vantruck.

His name was Terry. He had been driving for at least 15 hours because of the snow, he said, and had spent the last day or so in North Dakota. His teenage daughter sat in the passenger seat, noticeably angry that this trip would be prolonged a little while longer.

He had seen several accidents. He had seen a semi-truck completely stall in front of him. He had seen an crash, and a man laying in the snow surrounded by flashing ambulance lights.

And apparently, he saw me by the side of the road, vainly twisting my wrists to lift a Sonata with a faulty jack.

I couldn’t quite understand him, but I think he said he passed me on the highway, kept driving for about a mile and then turned around.

“I wondered if you needed some help,” he would tell me.

He handed me his card – he works in some sort of repair business – hopped back in his vantruck and drove away. I arrived home without any further problems and explained the story to my roommate, Joe, who happens to be from Oklahoma.

“People rag on Oklahoma and states like it,” he said, “but there’s nowhere else someone would do that.”

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