Scott Ellington's Blog

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Escape from Silicon Valley

I set off from Foster City, California at 7:30PM on the evening of Tuesday, June 12, 2013 for New York — because the week I spent with my aging mother in her Bronx co-op apartment in May convinced me that leaving her alone was the precisely wrong thing to do.  Giving myself one month to set my affairs in order, a foolhardy road trip of 3000 miles suddenly lay before me like the rash promise I’d made to begin my relocation by June 13.

The sixteen year old car I drive, a 1997 Toyota Corolla CE, was overburdened with about a half ton of my most indispensible stuff.  The remaining 2/3 of my property I’d crammed into boxes and stored semi-securely on the shelves of my employer’s warehouse.  If there is a hero in this recitation, it’s the long-neglected car that never failed me in the course of my journey east.

This is the point at which I launch into the major rant that justifies the title of his post, while diverging from the actual, physical trip I took earlier this month.  The tirade begins by highlighting user-unfriendly aspects of road travel on an interstate thoroughfare, and proceeds to key on similar inconveniences that riddle the information superhighway.  It hinges on the premise I’ve long held, that the people who design and execute the ubiquitous, proprietary systems “we” all use don’t, themselves, actually ever use the systems they’ve created — or the systems wouldn’t stink like hell.  I’d cite examples with which I’m familiar; the FedEx Online shipping system, the Mitel Online Store, DeviantART’s comments system…and bore the pants off anybody who happens to read these paragraphs and isn’t familiar with the organizations I cite.  So fill in your own blanks.

The point being that broadcast-style (newsprint/radio/television) information systems have readied us to shut-the-fuck-up and get over our niggling dissatisfactions with official procedures and authorized systems that don’t work as well as they might if effective feedback loops (for customers) were built into them and intelligent modification (custom[er]iztion) were not reflexively-dismissed as cost-prohibitive.  But the days of the age of broadcast-style information systems are numbered, aren’t they?  Don’t the rise of the internet and interactive social media mark the tomb of the Mushroom Generation (kept in the dark to eat shit) with the deathless words; “I’m mad as hell and I’m not a consumer anymore!”  No.

So, in the course of 62 years of living in California, I’d never dined at the Cattlemen’s Restaurant in Dixon, CA, until the evening of June 12, 2013.  It was well worth the stop my parents never deemed necessary in all the years I traveled with them from San Francisco to Sacramento, and all the years in which I traveled solo, more fixedly intent on destination than journey, habitually.  Forty-five minutes to dine and I was gratified, satisfied, and back on I-80 by 9PM, figuring to sleep for a few hours in the vicinity of Stateline.  At a rest stop outside of Truckee, I pulled over to catch a few hours of sleep and realized that I had no intention of doing so — so I got back on the path to the Bronx, and never try to sleep again until Bloomberg, Pennsylvania.

Here’s where I complain about the modern inability to indent the first sentence of a paragraph.

I have very little to say (that interests me) about driving across California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska, except that the maximum speed limit was a merciful 75 miles/hour, mostly.  I got the impression that Nebraska’s in the process of turnpiking, so infrastructural-improvement-construction-work zones crop up pretty frequently, dropping the maximum speed limit to 55, threatening doubled fines in work zones and narrowing two eastbound lanes to one.  Fuck Nebraska, but double-fuck Omaha, where I-80 is marked sketchily through a 10 mile maze of aging freeway cloverleaf nonsense that culminated in a major pothole seemingly designed to destroy my rear axle.

It happens that the date I’d arbitrarily decided upon for the start of this trip fell in the dark of the moon, when the only lights on the road that prevented me from driving off the freeway were my own headlights, the taillights and headlights of other vehicles and reflective signs that seemed mostly to terrorize me with visions of colliding with deer in the darkness.  You can also keep Des Moines, and the rest of Iowa where the moon don’t shine.

I stumbled into Chicago shortly after dawn, Thursday morning, expecting to get lost.  I reasoned that if Omaha and Des Moines had barely failed to confuse my forward progress, Chicago must succeed.  And my nerves had begun to fray into the complex delusion that long haul truck drivers have taken up the slack created by a sluggardly economy that’s cleansed the roads of state troopers and highway patrolmen; victims of thwarted collective bargaining agreements and sequestration.  Although I got swept up into the truckers’ vigilante behavior of shutting down the fast lane to flagrant speeders, I found my situational awareness suffering from fixation on the speedometer needle.  By Pennsylvania, I’d quit caring what the grassroots vigilantes were up to.   Indiana and Ohio had greatly weakened my grip on reason with construction zones, accommodation/convenience exits and various forms of restraint of trade visited on commercial organizations that don’t have nationally-recognized logos emblazoned on the turnpike signs that funnel travelling dollars into deep, familiar pockets (McDonald’s, Shell, EconoLodge…).

Ah, but, Pennsylvania! — Rolling, sweeping, lovely turns, manicured roads and beautiful green scenery — an Eden-like roller coaster addicted to cosmic steroids for a couple of serpentine centuries.  About 2/3 of the way through the state I asked a state trooper (or park ranger — one stupid hat looks much like another) how in the name of all that’s holy does a desperate driver get the hell off this amusement park ride they call the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  He didn’t bat an eye, so this probably wasn’t the first time the question had been put to him.  He indicated clearly that there is no other/better way to get from Youngstown to Patterson than this very interstate.  That’s when I apologized for asking a silly question, adding that I’d been awake for about 96 hours and 2300 miles.  He suggested a nap at the next rest stop (mile marker 221).  I said something polite, yet incoherent, and drove on to Bloomberg, PA where I spent $91 on a motel shower, and 12 hours of deathlike sleep.

The toll on each of the major bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area is $5.00.  Shortly before noon, Saturday, I crossed the Hudson River at the George Washington Bridge for $13.50.  Welcome to New York, Sucker.  My destination was the southwest corner of the Bronx, and the intersection of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.  In the ensuing 2.5 hours, I would cross the Harlem River four times, intermittently poring over my Hagstrom’s 5 Borough Atlas of the City of New York and driving in perplexed, dead-ending circles.  I’m no too proud to ask, but previous experience has taught me that the vast majority of New Yorkers can’t give coherent directions.  Habit, intuition and experience don’t easily translate into words like left and right  here in Spuyten Duyvil where the grid is a nice idea that doesn’t really apply all that well on the Manhattan side of the river, either.

I think the east is different from the west in one important way.  The east has long been organized around ass-by-jawbone money grubbing, while the west is rooted in private, antisocial comfort.  Money segregates in the east.  Money congregates in the west.  In 1876, Custer died on this date.  In 1776, monarchy was in trouble.  Fill in your own blanks, but be sure to level a few rounds at George Custer, George III and whoever else annoys you.

24 Jun 13 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. In late 2017, I spent $1600 to quell the intermittent shriek coming off my left front wheel. No handling crisis, but it seemed the prudent thing to do in the face of approaching winter and I’d long since grown tired of the noise that accompanied long, sharp turns.
    Omaha didn’t break my rear axle, as I thought at the time. It was the left front axle, spindle and hub bearing that had to be replaced, along with a couple of tires. Three years after what should have been a catastrophic (maybe very lethal) multi-car mess on I-80 at 23:30 in Omaha, Nebraska near a downtown exit on 14JUN2013, my 1997 Toyota Corolla CE got repaired. HELL of a car! The pothole probably got fixed quicker.
    My mother’s cognitive skills continue to deteriorate. America is not remotely ready for the Alzheimer’s/dementia epidemic, but the media/political mavens who thrive on popular fear, bitterness, ignorance and paranoia are riding into pig heaven on the shoulders of people like my mother, whose mailbox and voicemail USED to be jam-packed with correspondence from Greendot Moneypack card swindlers, sweepstakes-win notifications and pleas from real and imaginary charities and political assholes from all sides of the aisle.
    Although it feels disloyal to elaborate on the subject, my mother’s slowly-evolving state leads people in this 140-unit apartment co-op to greet me with “How’s your mom” smalltalk. Or perhaps that’s just characteristic of New York City. The thing is that nobody actually wants to hear much more than “She’s fine”. And that level of information exchange doesn’t even scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg. For example, earlier this week I installed a double-cylinder deadlock, replacing the thumbturn deadlock that had been in place for several years on the entry door to my mother’s apartment. I installed the lock that requires a key to exit the apartment because ten days ago I was awakened by a flashlight in my face at 04:35 Monday morning and four Bronx policemen who were returning my mother home. She’d stepped out after 03:30 (when I got up to take a leak) and gone up from the fourth to seventh floor to snag the attention of at least one other resident who evidently called the building superintendent and the cops. She’s forgotten her ability to lock the front door, because she’s forgotten that she has (or had) a full set of keys. So an unlocked front door put 4 cops, my mother and the lady from 7E in the apartment. I may never figure out who left a paper bag in the living room containing two pounds of gourmet butter a stylish loaf of bread and two dozen tiny potatoes. It’s a cute insoluble question.
    At 99 she dodders and mutters and believes a lot of ridiculous things that limit her freedoms and responsibilities, like;
    her aunt who actually died about 1970 owns her apartment, and Aunt Rose doesn’t allow x, y, and z but insists on a, b, and c.
    And my mother believes she can’t live here indefinitely. (Although living her indefinitely is precisely why she’s here.)
    And sometimes her mother, who died around 1968, owns this apartment, and doesn’t allow u, v and w but insists on d, e & f.
    And my father, who died in 1994 has to be contacted by telephone in order to be sure he’ll remember to come get her and take her home
    — which is sometimes their home in San Bruno or South San Francisco, Ca or the Bronx apartment where she lived with Aunt Rose and others, circa 1930.
    Most of the people she frequently tells me she communicates with died decades ago. The presentation of fact has nothing to do with her belief system(s).
    And the number she uses to call my father is the number of her apartment’s land line — probably the only phone number she still has committed to memory and print,
    and still she sometimes gets it wrong, but her single day record for fruitless phone calls (according to the MS Excel record I’ve been keeping since June 2014 from the Optimum call log is:
    127 on 20 May 2016
    131 on 27 April, 2017 and
    183 on 27 March 2018.
    When her phone calls lead to inevitable frustration in her attempt to reach my father for a ride home, she’ll sometimes call 411 for operator assistance (more frustration), then
    611 for phone line repair — and I can listen to her talk to hapless phone company employees who waste minutes every time this happens trying, essentially, to help a madwoman speak to the dead.
    But I can’t help American institutions and corporations cope with my mother’s peculiarities, not because I wouldn’t love to to help, but because corporation and institutions are deeply unready for the Alzheimer’s and dementia epidemic.

    If that pothole had made a mess of my parent-rescue attempt in 2013, and I’d died, my mother might be homeless, destitute and dead.
    Obviously, living in isolation with a nutbag for six years makes a person chatty. But I don’t feel that I’ve violated important confidences here.
    I don’t see swindlers or political assholes using any of the information I’ve disclosed here to anybody’s disadvantage and I’ll close this footnote
    with the confession of my sincere belief that an insane 24/7, 365 roommate disposes a person to run off at the mouth in a culture that is not
    remotely geared to altruistic caregiving, caretaking, nor care.

    Comment by Scott Ellington | 24 Apr 19 | Reply

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