A couple of weeks ago, I made another road trip from New York City to Texas.
People ask if I find all those miles boring. Not at all. I meet interesting people, and curious things happen – things that would not have occurred if I stayed in New York or took an airplane.
An example. I went into a liquor store in a small town in West Virginia, a place where an urban liberal could easily feel out of place. A cat met me at the door, and I felt welcome. Another one, who was sleeping in a Bourbon display, began purring immediately when I scratched her head. The clerk was less approachable. Maybe it was my Central Park Conservancy cap. But when he realized that I like cats, he opened up.
He motioned to me to follow him toward a door at the back of the shop. It led into a room that was filled with caged cats.
“I have twenty-one here. More at the house. Forty altogether.”
“Are they strays?”
“People bring them to me. Those little ones over there by the wall were still nursing on their dead mama, when the guy who shot her showed me where they were. At first he said she had been run over.” He could offer no explanation for why the shooter had taken him to the crime scene.
Nor did he have any ideas about the killer’s motivation. “People do that sometimes.”
Without a segue, he said, “I come in at seven in the morning and let them out of their cages and let them run around for an hour.”
I left without asking any more questions. I’d reached my limit of odd.
Another time, in a motel fitness center, I got to talking with a man who went by the name King Arthur. He played for the Harlem Wizards, a basketball entertainment troop like the Harlem Globetrotters. In fact, King Arthur was the younger brother of Choo Choo, who played for the Globe Trotters. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that my back was bothering me. The King advised me to strengthen my core, and demonstrated the plank exercise and variations on it. I told him Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg included the plank in her workouts. He didn’t know who she was. I bought a copy of King Arthur’s illustrated children’s book about playing basketball and overcoming obstacles.
At the registration desk of a Hampton Inn in Hope, Arkansas, I said to the clerk that the truck traffic on I 40 and I 30 coming down from Memphis had been an ordeal.
“Sure. It’s Wednesday. It’s always worse on Wednesdays.” I let it go. After supper, I came back to it.
” Do you know for a fact that truck traffic is worse on Wednesdays?”
“Not a fact exactly. But it’s true.”
“Why would it be worse on Wednesday?”
In a tone that implied I was a little slow, she said, “they’re trying to make their deliveries.”
* * *
Print journalism is supposed to be done for, but I found newspapers for sale at most of the convenience stores where I stopped for gasoline. They provided interesting reading over supper after a long day behind the wheel whizzing through real America.
Judging from the several papers I read, I speculate that that form of journalism will be with us so long as grocery stores run specials and high schools have football teams and the dead require obituaries.
The Glenville Democrat offered something more – one whole column of prayers – right on the front page. The issue I read included, among other requests to the Almighty, a plea for the well-being of hurricane victims. It omitted “Lord, help us to stop aggravating climate change so that we’ll have fewer natural disasters like hurricanes.” You’d think a praying newspaper named Democrat would have included that.
* * *
About half way along in my journey, I expected to encounter the “going home feeling” that Houston columnist Leon Hale has written about. Oddly, it never made much of an appearance. Don’t know for sure why. Maybe because I’d made frequent visits to Texas during the twenty-eight years I’d been away. Maybe because in this age of the internet and smart phones, the feeling of separation that accompanies removal from home is not as strong, not as disturbing as when Hale wrote about it some years back. Time was when the expense of long-distance phone calls made them rare. In school we were taught how to write “friendly” letters (a form distinct from “business” letters), and we used them to communicate with those we’d left behind.
I made a start on that “going-home feeling” in Tennessee when a clerk in a gas station offered, “bless your heart,” and a waitress called me “honey.” Where I’ve been living in recent years, people don’t talk that way.That was promising, but then United Health Care got in the way.
Their email began ominously with, “It has come to our attention.” Not as scary as “we regret to inform you,” but bad. The proles at United Health Care were suspicious that I no longer live in Saranac Lake or anywhere else in the area to which my coverage is contractually tied, and I’d better phone them pronto and get that squared away if I wanted them to pay for anything.
Before responding, I degraded much of a whole day’s otherwise pleasant drive fashioning an argument that I could reasonably be considered as still living in Saranac Lake. That’s where my mail is sent. (They didn’t need to know that it was forwarded from there to TravelingMailbox.com in North Carolina from which I would eventually receive it wherever I might be.) We had simply sold the monastery and not yet resettled. For the time being, we were of “no known address,” like the drifter who holds up the liquor store. And we were in discernment about where to live until the drooling starts. That should not make me uninsurable, even though United Health Care has no category for such a way of being.
When preparing for the New York to Texas drive, I always anticipate that it’s going to be a retreat – something like spending time with the Benedictines in silence and reflection on non-quotidian matters. It never works out quite like that. All that time behind the wheel includes reflection, that’s for sure, but it’s mostly centered on the stuff of everyday life. It surely did on this latest trip.