Saturday, August 2, 2014

Driving with my Father

In those early mornings, he would rise long before I would. I wouldn’t awaken until he would call for me, calling, “Get up if you’re going.” I would mumble some response, usually, “Just a few more minutes,” and turn back over and wrap the blanket even more tightly around me. A day off from school was meant for sleeping in; it meant a late morning filled with nothing to do. I would lie there, shielding my eyes from the light that streamed into my room through the open door from the bathroom down the hall where he was shaving. I could hear the water running most mornings. That meant I had better hurry. No one took less time to shower, shave, and leave than my father.

I would kick off the covers and stretch my skinny legs over the edge of the bed. Sleep had crusted in the corners of my eyes, and my hands automatically would reach to pry the crusties away. Yawning, I would make my way down the hallway, shuffling my feet. My socks would make a swooshing sound on the carpet. My father would be standing, perhaps sitting, in the bathroom as I passed. I would mumble some monosyllabic hello and shuffle down the stairs to the other bathroom. I could have crawled and not gone slower.

It was during my early adolescence, that awkward age of not knowing who you are, who you will be, or who should or want to be, that my father took a job that required him to travel frequently. Four days per week he was gone all day, driving through the tri-state area and stretching the limits of what this term meant, leaving our town, small as it was, to drive up into the mountains to villages that made our small town look like a shining light of cultural wealth, only to return, most often, in the late evening. In the beginning his return was late at night, long past my twelve year old bedtime; he would return home from work, only to rise before sunup the next morning to start his trek again. By the time I would regularly accompany him, as regularly as holidays and snow days would allow, the days were shorter, both starting and ending sooner.

Peeing for the first time of the morning, I was hungry. No time for breakfast though, as in the time it took me to drain my small bladder, I knew my father had finished shaving/brushing his teeth/etc, and was dressed. Breakfast would come soon enough, though. I would pass him at the base of the stairs, him coming down, me going up to get dressed. “Hurry, ok,” he would say. I’d nod, still dazed from sleep and adolescent dreams that were beginning to change, to become more adult-minded, leaving the realms of childhood with their clowns and Disney cartoons, moving into the areas of mature thought and pubescent desire, something with which I was not fully familiar or fully comfortable.

Hurriedly dressing, I would then grab my portable CD player and at least one book, for I would need something to keep me occupied during the long day ahead. Heaven forbid I use this fleeting time wisely. In hindsight, I should have spent less time listening to The Doors and more time listening to my father on these daytrips. But when I was fifteen, I knew that Mark Twain was right and my father knew nothing. Brushing my teeth was a hurried act, and I bounded down the stairs as energetically as my sleeping legs would allow. He would be waiting, finishing his umpteenth cup of coffee, for me by the door or in the kitchen, depending how long I had taken to get ready.

Our day began at Speedway for morning coffee and a pack of Phillies cigars. My breakfast was most often found there. I would look around the candy and snack cake section. I would walk the two feet section several times, picking up several different cakes or candy bars, only to return them to their proper space and divert my attention to some other treat. My father, standing at the checkout counter, waiting patiently with his coffee and snuff and cigars, would call, “Come on. Hurry up.” Endlessly waiting, patiently, though with a hint of sarcastic honesty, would he call after me. My hunger wanted McDonald’s, but we had a long day ahead of us, and the sooner we started the sooner we could get home, for to my father, each day was long. Every day was tiring, the relentless accumulation of miles upon miles chalked up in a car that looked and smelled like someone had been living it. Likely because they had. My father spent more time in the driver’s seat than he did anywhere else. I would grab a pack of Swiss Cake Rolls and a Mountain Dew and meet my father at the counter. 

“Add this to it,” he would tell the clerk, whom he always seemed to know, a friendly acquaintanceship formed over regular mornings of Styrofoam coffee and cheap smokes. I’d take my breakfast and follow my father out the door. I’d eat my cakes as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Blending into traffic, my father would cross the bridge into Ohio. Ohio Welcomes You, the sign read, staring at us as we waited at the red light. The light would turn green and we would head north; always, it seemed, heading north, regardless of where we wound up. Rarely do I remember us going some other way, into West Virginia, at times staying in parts of Kentucky. Following the flow of traffic up 52, I would eat my sugary breakfast and wash it down with the even more sugary soda, a combination which would surely result in a stomach ache. 

The radio played John Boy and Billy, a morning radio show on which we could both agree during my formative years. The hosts were seemingly country folk, a couple of “good ole boys”—my father’s terms, not necessarily mine, at least in later years, though I suppose the term was apropos; it had a lighter, more innocent meaning, though, when my father used it— who talked about NASCAR, country music and the other goings on in the world. We would laugh at their homespun humor, mostly clean, though when their jokes bordered on the sexually charged or tongue in cheek, I would question what they meant. My father would respond with his usual phrase for situations such as that: “You’ll understand when you are older”; a phrase which I was accustomed to hearing the majority of my life as I sat through adult-dominated conversations and movies. When that stage of being older came, the memories of what I was waiting to understand had long gone, leaving me wondering what jokes I had missed due to my youthful naiveté. 

We would drive along in silence, listening to the radio show until we lost reception. In those years the good ole boy humor was something to which I looked forward on these daytrips. Segments of the show were throwbacks to old radio shows where the hosts acted out some skit, usually with a political or marital joke as the punch line. Not entirely misogynistic, yet not entirely egalitarian. And we would continue in this way as I struggled to stay awake. Any other day I would have been at school at the time, but there was always something about the whir of the car over the road, the radio and the comfort of the seat, perhaps the sweet aroma of my father’s cigar, that lulled me to sleep. The more I combated my drooping lids, the more my lashes pulled together.

I would drift in and out of sleep as we continued. Often my father’s first stop of his route was up to an hour, perhaps two, away, so we had ample to sit in lapses of silence, interspersed with small talk, as I tried to stay awake. I would drift off to sleep, tossing and turning as much as my restrictive seatbelt would allow. In my teenage years I would awaken and shift in my seat awkwardly, an uncomfortable reminder of my developing, hard-to-control hormones. I would always look around nervously, avoiding my father’s gaze, always suspicious of what I may have said in my sleep, and hoping that my father hadn’t heard anything that would divulge the source of my pubescent discomfort. 

My father was my own personal Willy Lowman. He drove around the tri-state to stores, little mom and pop operations, much like the origin of Starbuck’s— though unlike the coffee giant, the grocery stores my father frequented never took off and grew to into multinational organizations— and took orders for a wholesale company. His car was always a mess, cans of snuff and empty pop bottles littering the center console, floorboard, and backseat areas. On the mornings I would go with him, he would always take a few minutes the night before, sometimes the morning of, to clear out a spot for me to sit. The workbooks in my seat were tossed into the back, sometimes landing in a box of similar books and candy samples, other times falling into the floor and resting with the discarded sandwich wrappers and cigar boxes. On occasion I would be sent out of the store to retrieve an order book or catalogue that had been tossed into the back or tucked away to accommodate me when it shouldn’t have been. Those few minutes of helping my father with his work were as close as I would come to following in his footsteps.

We’d pull up to the first stop of the day, often a dingy building in a small town seemingly forgotten by time and God both.  “Don’t bother coming in; I won’t be in here long,” my father would sometimes say as we parked. He would grab his combination clipboard/notebook and get out of the car. I would sit there listening to the radio or reading. Given the areas my father was traveling at the time, a lot of the radio he could pick up was talk radio, having lost The John Boy and Billy Show some time prior. At an early adolescent age I was exposed to the rantings and ravings of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh—figures whose opinions and beliefs would figure into our arguments into the coming years. They kept me company when my father was in a store. At the time they were amicable company enough; until I grew older and started forming my own opinions and beliefs, I thought the conservative hosts my father listened to were humorous and enlightened, out to crush the liberal agenda and set the record straight. In years to come politics would be a subject my father and I could not broach without an argument. He subscribed to Limbaugh, while I would come to laud NPR in my late teens. I didn’t know that the two were mutually exclusive, but it would seem that these two were polar opposites without any means of reconciliation—at least as far as my father and I were concerned. 

He would return to the car a few moments later, grumbling about how the store “doesn’t frickin’ order. It’s been three weeks since they ordered anything.” I would always just smile or nod as he backed out of the parking spot and turned toward the road. What did I know of struggling business—I was going to be a writer. Or an actor. A lawyer some days. But most likely an artist of some sort. Musician was beginning to creep into my mind. We would head on down the road toward the next stop, sometimes thirty or forty minutes away, other times literally down the block. Passing through these small towns that lingered outside my window, I observed the feeling of stagnant complacency they seemed to emit. The town we lived in was small to me, too small given my then aspirations for my future, though it was a bustling metropolis compared to the towns my father passed through on a daily basis. And the people all seemed content. Their dreams, so far as I saw, were of a slightly larger store, a better crop, a better barn.

At the next stop, perhaps the third of the day, I would go into the store with my father. “Is Jimmy in?” or Sue or Bob, or whoever he needed to meet with, he would ask the clerk behind the counter. “He’s busy right now,” the person would respond. My father would nod. “Tell him Dave is here. I’m with Laynes.”

The clerk would disappear and return seconds later with the manager at his or her side. “Dave, how ya doing?” they would call to my father. By this point in the conversation I had lost interest in the goings on of my father’s profession. I had no aspirations to me a salesman; it was in my father’s blood to sell, and I would learn in coming years that my aspirations lay as far from the retail market as logically possible.

As my father would conduct his business, I would wander around the store, looking up and down the various aisles. I don’t know what I ever expected to find of interest, but year after year I would wander. Many of the stores housed movie rental sections as well, so it was to there that my attention was immediately drawn. I was always looking for some new film that I had missed in theaters or some obscure classic I hadn’t been introduced to yet. I never rented anything at any of the stores; my father was only at each store once per week, and it would have been ridiculous to expect him to return a movie for me and pay late fees to a store three hours from home. Still, store after store, I would turn my attention to that small cinematic section the beckoned to me like a pirates treasure trove waiting to be plundered.

“Moe, let’s go,” my father would call when his business was finished. Moe was a nickname he had always called me, taking it from the Three Stooges, if I’m not mistaken. First used in childhood to distinguish between individuals in a family littered with Davids, it stuck well into my late teenage years. We’d leave the store and head again down the road.

Passing through the small towns with my father, he would often take back roads and rural routes, as these were the roads that held many of his stores. It was from the years of traveling with him that I developed my affinity for scenic routes, which drives my wife crazy. My father, used to the roads, would be unfazed by the winding dips and steep curves. My stomach, used to the flatter, straighter roads of the city, would lurch, twist and drop with each dip the car took. When I was younger I would often grap the door handle and brace myself as we crested each mound. Kicking my feet hard against the floorboard, I would straighten my back against the seat and try to calm my stomach, which was beginning to feel heavy in anticipation of the coming plunge. I would gasp and try to catch and hold my breath each time. My father would laugh and say “wuss,” smiling and shaking his head. The roller coaster ride would continue, and I would groan “whoa” with each dip, thankful when it was over. At times, the road was deceiving. The road would rise and stay there, newly level, only giving the appearance of being a sharp drop. I would brace myself and wait for that bottom that never fell out. My father would laugh and jokingly chide me. “How soon till you grow some balls and grow up,” he would say. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement made with raised, incredulous eyebrows. 

It would be about this time, though sometimes sooner, depending on the station my father had selected on the radio, that I would put in my headphones to tune out the noise, or perhaps I did it because I was at that dissociative stage of my life where solitude is golden and it’s cool to try to separate yourself from your parents, acting as if you are independent, that you don’t have the parental control and influence of everyone else your age; they are suckered into being their parents’ lemming and tools, and you are not, you are an individual, separate from your parents who know nothing. Just like everyone else at that age. 

I would put in my headphones and turn up the noise. At that age, that’s what a lot of it was, just noise. It was during this time of traveling with my father that I was experimenting with music in relation to who I was. I was trying to be cool, so I listened to the music of my peers: hip hop and whatever else permeated the airwaves on popular stations. This was before I developed a love of Dylan, Hendrix, Sinatra, and Coltrane. I would move through this period, my musical tastes changing like the seasons, and only years later would I return to an appreciation for hip hop music as my love of jazz and poetry burgeoned in early adulthood.

My father, however, never would develop an appreciation for hip hop. “Gawd,” he’d groan, “how do you listen to that crap?” I would turn my music up even louder to ignore his chiding. Time would pass and stops would be made, and eventually I would take off my headphones and rejoin my father’s world inside the car. We’d continue in intermittent bouts of smalltalk as my father drove. At each stop that I went into the store with my father, seemingly every time my father turned around, I would ask for money for something: candy, soda, some other form of junk food. It is amazing that I did not start to gain weight until after I settled into the contentment of marriage years later. 

We’d be in a store and my father would laugh, “Boy thinks I’m made of money” to the clerk. He would finish with his business in the store and we would leave. When I was younger, I could never understand why the stores didn’t allow the two of us free stuff. After all, my father was providing a service to these men and women; the least they could do was give us free soda. I never asked him about it, though. He would have lectured me on the ways of life: you have to work for everything; too many people in this country are already getting a free ride that you and I are paying for— something along those lines. It was best not to broach the subject. 

Whenever there was a pretty girl in the store, this would provide the subject of our next conversation. Back in the car my father would say, “Did you see the butt on that girl?” I came to realize in years to come that this was merely a setup. Sex was always an embarrassing topic, especially in those formative years. I would answer sheepishly or not all. My quiet answers were typically along the lines of, “No,” or “I wasn’t looking” or “What?” as though I hadn’t heard. I would avert my eyes from his gaze at this point, looking at the dashboard if I had to, to keep from meeting his questioning eyes.  If that was the setup, next came his true point. During my middle school and freshmen years, when dating was not an issue, given my lack of experience I had with it, he would ask, “You’re not gay, are you?” 

“Of course not,” I would answer sharply. I was still at a stage in my life when I had been instructed, implicitly if not overtly, to deride homosexuality. In years to come, this, too, would be a subject of contention between my father and me.  

“So, then who do you like?” he would ask. I always knew that question would be coming. I was prepared for it and had even though up the perfect answer.

“No one,” I would answer quickly. He would raise his eyebrows in disbelief. He never believed me.  “Out of all the girls in your school, there isn’t one you like?” he would answer. His voice would drip of unconvinced sarcasm. 

“No,” I would answer, my voice hoarse and filled with cotton. My stomach would be twisting and turning, a bundle of nerves because I was lying. My father knew I was lying, and I knew that he knew I was lying. This made the conversation even more tortuous. I would long for it to be over.  My father would accept my lie briefly, turning his attention and the conversation to something else, for which I was immensely grateful. All the years of these trips, each trip lasting several hours, and I never confessed my undying love for any girl until I was a sophomore in high school. It was not until then, when I actively, though irregularly, started dating in high school that my father sighed a deep sigh of relief that I was actually not gay. Given the infrequency of my dating throughout my teenage years, his relieved sigh likely did not fully end, though, until I was married.

We could continue the morning of small talk until around lunch time. My father’s typical lunch consisted of sandwiches or pizza slices picked up at one of his stores, anything he could get quickly on the road. Typically the closest he came to a restaurant meal was White Castle, those tiny sliders he could palm and devour in one bite. My hunger craved a sit-down meal: the typical adolescent diet of McDonald’s or Burger King. On the days I would ride with my father, he would stop at a McDonald’s or Hardees when I scrunched up my nose at the drying-out pizza slices on the small convenience store counters. The crusty fried chicken may have been good, but I was too good to try it. On the rare occasion I would actually, though begrudgingly, try the pizza slices, they were good and I would be genuinely surprised by this fact. But often, though, McDonalds would be our lunch destination. I didn’t appreciate it at the time; I took for granted my father taking the time out of his day, stopping his schedule to accommodate my inconsiderate wants, and never appreciated that he wanted to get his day over with as soon as possible, to move from stop to stop, from store to store, with consistency, to end his day and get home and relax. I didn’t understand that driving day in and day out could be exhausting, and that the longer we sat in McDonald’s and ate, the longer I took, the longer it made his already too long day.

We throw away our trash and return to the car. “How many stops do you have left?” I would ask my father. He would answer without thinking. “Five or six,” he’d reply. He was so used to his schedule that it was no longer necessary to count the stops in a day or to look at a printout or itinerary. We would continue on, taking primarily the state and rural routes that ran us by small towns and villages.

“Hey, hand me that CD in the door,” my father would say. I would groan as my eyes read what I picked up: Just Swingin’. It was some swing CD my father had picked up in a Dallas drug store years before. It was a jump-jive-and-wail project by some unknown band. It came out around the time that the swing craze struck in the last part of the twentieth century, as the boy bands were being left behind and watching their success crumble. The artists on the CD attempted to ride on the coattails of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, each of whom found success in the late 1990s, and at this point in my life I had no appreciation for any of them. I wanted Eminem and DMX.

“Come on,” I’d plead. “Do we have to listen to that?” I would ask my father. I knew by his grin that the answer was yes long before his mouth ever opened.

“Yep,” he would say, taking the CD from with one hand and popping open the case. He’d slide the CD into the player, and as soon as the first horns could be heard, he’d turn up the volume. Riding in a car with a thumbing bass, the car rattling over hip hop beats and thug-life lyrics was one thing, but bumping to songs about “solid squares” and zoot suits was a completely different matter entirely. I would slide down in my seat, slouching, head bent, my eyes averting all other life as the world outside stared into the window wondering what a full orchestra was doing playing so loudly in a tiny car. 

“How can you listen to this?” I would ask. He was doing it, I knew, not just because he liked it. He was doing it to see how tough I was: if I could handle this, if I could sit through this thirty minute CD of hell, then I could handle anything. But as if to make matters worse, he wouldn’t just play the music. While that would have been tortuous enough, he amplified his punishment by singing along while he snapped his fingers and (ever the dancer) bopped and grooved, swaying in the driver seat, as if he were the hippest of the hepcats.

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