Back from the Happy Family Holiday Extravaganza, which this year turned into more of a "sitting around with my youngest brother and my mom's - ? - (I never know quite how to describe Dale - he's not a "boyfriend" in the traditional sense, more of a "companion", but while the latter term implies more than their actual relationship, the former seems somehow less adequate), drinking cheap Canadian whiskey, eating fatty, high-cholesterol smoked beef products, and watching John Wayne movies all day long" sort of holiday. I'm not even certain the term "holiday" is appropriate here, since that would imply some quality of specialness, and so far as I could tell this was pretty much a typical weekend for these guys.
Actually, it could have been worse. No fights ensued, there were no disruptive surprise visits from terminally alcoholic siblings, and I only got into one brief argument with another brother who insisted I accept his gift of $20, while at the same time he adamantly refused to take a proffered Target Gift Card in exchange (unbeknownst to either of us, we both ended sneaking the other's gift back before the visit ended).
The return trip on Sunday turned out to be far more challenging than I desired, as the train failed to appear at the scheduled time (nothing new there), and despite repeated calls - by numerous waiting passengers - to Amtrak Customer Service, we were only informed after a three hour delay that in fact the train would not be coming at all. A mudslide between Olympia and Tacoma had effectively shut down the tracks, and we were to be bused between Kelso and Seattle. But, of course, nobody seemed to know when exactly that would occur. Finally, a charter bus appeared at around 9:15 p.m., more than four hours after the initial scheduled departure time. On the plus side, the driver was a complete maniac who, except for having to drop off a single passenger in Tacoma, otherwise would have completed the one-way trip in under two hours.
In other vehicle-related news: today is Tuesday the 27th, which means my car has been effectively out-of-commission for 8 days now. I called the mechanic yesterday morning, to see what progress had been made, and whether I would be able to come by in the afternoon to pick it up. "Well, we're still trying to figure out why it keeps dying," he said, "but, you should be able to get it later today."
So, I bussed downtown, did a bit of shopping, grabbed a quick lunch, and made my way uptown, arriving at the shop around 2:30 p.m. The bus was still sitting in one of the bays.
"We tried to start it, but now it looks like the starter brushes have worn a bare spot in the coil from all the turn-overs," announced the Head Mech, with a non-chalance just this side of condescending, "We'll need to replace it."
"And, um how long do you think that will take?"
"Depends on how long it takes us to track one down."
"Have you tried Bow-Wow in Lynnwood?" I asked, helpfully, "they carry a full-line of VW parts."
"Never heard of them." That should have tipped the scales right then-and-there. Bow-Wow is legendary; anybody in the Pacific Northwest who's ever worked on a vintage VW knows Bow-Wow, and the fact that this guy didn't even recognize the name only confirmed my worst suspitions: I was clearly in the thrall of complete incompetents.
"Okay, so maybe tomorrow, right?" "Tomorrow" was quickly turning into my least favorite word of the week.
"Yeah, we'll let you know."
I was stuck. My options at that point would have been either to cut my losses and have the bus towed elsewhere, or let them continue to tinker. Utilizing the theory that, "the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don't know", I - unwisely perhaps - decided on the latter course of action.
So, it was back on the bus for me.
As I walked in the door of my apartment at 4:45, my cellphone rang.
Guess who was calling.
"She's all ready to go," declared Head Mech, "you can pick it up, if you can get here before 6:00 p.m."
Back on the bus - again.
Made it with about 15 minutes to spare, and sure enough, there she is sitting outside the garage.
"Where'd you find a starter that quick?" I asked.
"Up in Lynnwood, at __ (some place I'd never heard of before)."
"So, you didn't call Bow-Wow after all."
"Uh, no. These guys had one."
Okay, fine. Whatever. I pay the bill - $650! - take the receipt and key, and hop in.
The other mechanic comes out to see what all the noise is about.
"Oh, yeah. We never could get it to run."
Now, please keep in mind, the MAIN reason I had brought the car in was because it kept dying when I took my foot off the gas. So, basically what this guy has just imparted to me is that, despite having the vehicle in the shop for seven days, and having just spent over $600 of my hard-earned credit, they still had no clue as to what the original problem was, and furthermore, hadn't done a thing in the way of solving it.
At that point, all I wanted to do is get the Hell away from there.
Finally, after about five minutes of nearly constant cranking-over, I managed to get out of the driveway, and limp up the hill to within about 12 blocks of home before the battery gave out ("Oh, we had to start it quite a few times, so the battery is going to need to be charged up!" the mechanic had mentioned, right before I managed to escape their clutches - pun intended. Evidentally, it never occured to them to hook it up to one of their shop chargers in the meantime). I just barely got it into a parking stall right across the street from a garage specializing in European cars, and one which a friend and fellow VW owner had recommended to me in the past. I dropped the ignition key, along with a note and copy of the previous garage's invoice into the mail slot, crossed my fingers, and got on yet another bus for home.
Got a call from the garage this morning. "We're just pulling it into the shop now," said the owner, "from your description, and from what I can see, your battery negative cable is from the Pleistocene era, and that's most likely what's been causing the problems."
"Okay, and how much would it cost to replace that?" I replied.
"Not much, we should have it ready to go in an hour or two."
He went on, "What I can't figure out is why they didn't replace that before replacing your starter. That would have been the most obvious thing to check first."
He went on, "And why in the world did you take it to those guys in the first place?"
"Good question," I answered, "but, believe me, it won't go back there again."
So, the "unsolveable problem" that took a full week and more than $600 for the morons at Elliott Automotive (yes, I'll name them now) to misdiagnose turns out to be something that by rights should have cost maybe $50 in parts and perhaps a couple of hours of shop time - at the most - to correct.
I'm of a mind to stop payment on the credit card charge, and write nasty letters to the Better Business Bureau, State Attorneys General, and anyone else I can think of, warning them about Elliot's unparalleled level of incompetency.
As if the news wasn't bad enough. With my bus still sitting in the shop (Day #4) word comes from Sao Paolo, Brazil that Volkswagen AG, the South American arm of the venerable "people's car" manufacturer will roll the last air-cooled bus off the assembly line sometime tomorrow. Although the bus itself will still be built (it's size-to-carrying capacity ratio makes it a very popular vehicle in the dense urban environments of Brazil), starting next year it will be outfitted with a dual-fuel, water-cooled engine.
Yes, even us VW devotees acknowledge the old air-cooled engines are smelly, loud, leaky, underpowered and achieve gas mileage ratings that make even a Hummer owner wince in sympathy, but they do have the advantage of being easy to work on (which, based on my own personal experience is a GOOD thing, considering how many times mine has gone into the shop in the 6 1/2 years I've owned it), and until now, parts were still fairly easy to obtain.
Now, that's all going to change, as the availability of Brazilian OEM inventories dwindle, and used or remanufactured parts become increasingly scarce. As with the discontinuation of the classic "bug" a few years back, when the last manufacturing plant in Mexico shut down, it will become increasingly difficult for us bus owners to score engine parts, thus hastening the eventual demise of our beloved "splitties" and "breadloaves" (presumably, the later model water-cooled "wedgies" and contemporary-but-far-blander Eurovans won't be affected). So, it's entirely possible that within a decade or two the only people who will be able to continue maintaining their buses are rich folk, and die-hard collectors, effectively relegating the VW's historical egalitarian cache to some dusty historical footnote.
Few other vehicles have exacted a similar level of rabid devotion and loyaly from their drivers; you just don't see people in Nissan Sentras or Dodge Caravans or Ford Explorers or even Cadillacs acknowledge each other the way bus drivers do. There's just something very old-fashioned and even romantic about sitting high up in that forward designed cab, peering out through the wide bay window, and spying another bus approaching from a distance, like two ancient square-rigged schooners on the high seas. Then, just as they pass, their respective captains hail each other with the traditional raised "V" sign, a gesture of greeting and recognition lost on the schools of lesser vehicles swarming in their wake.
The sense of connection one feels to complete strangers, holding in common perhaps nothing else but their mutual affection for these bulbous, ungainly, beloved vehicles is something rare indeed. Owning a VW bus affords one entry to a rather unique fraternity, one not predicated on educational background, professional or political affiliation, or any other quality related to class or income status. You could be liberal or conservative, rich or poor, black, white, yellow or brown, but as the owner of a "Type II", you're all members of the same extended family.
It'll be a sad day indeed when the last VW bus sighs it's final sooty breath on the sides of the Great American Road. And I just hope (as does my mechanic no doubt) that I won't be around to see that day come to pass.
*Sigh!* It always seems to happen to me right around this time of the year.
The car, she breaks down, just when I need it most.
I'm supposed to be house/cat-sitting for some friends in Bellevue, who left on a two-week vacation on Monday. Now, the bus has been acting up a bit the past couple of weeks; stalling at intersections, running a little rough, generally telling me it's time to take it in for a tune-up. So, Monday I drop it off at the mechanics, thinking I'll get it back at the end of the day, just in time to start making the back-and-forth commute to the Eastside.
How wrong that turned out to be.
First off, around 2:00 p.m. I get a call from the garage, telling me: a.) they couldn't get it to stall, as I had indicated and b.) that the points and rotor showed a bit of carbonization, and would I like to have them replaced? Also, they noticed that the tail lights weren't working properly, and should they look into this as well? Well, sure, not a problem. I knew about the lighting issue (it's 30 year-old wiring, after all), and even though it was going to add a bit more to the bill, it's worth it to get all the little bits-and-pieces working in tip-top shape.
By 4:30 p.m. I hadn't heard back from them, and so I called them up, and was informed they were having some trouble isolating the wiring problem, and can they keep it overnight? Okay, not terribly convenient, but I figure Mr. Big (the NOTORIOUS cat) can go ONE day without human companionship, which as far as he's concerned means roughly, "I want to go out NOW! Open the door, furless minion!"
Now, it's Tuesday. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
3:00 p.m. Still no word from the garage. I call them again. "Um, now it keeps stalling, we don't know why. Oh, and by-the-way, your throttle cable is shot, and there's a fuel leak inside the engine compartment."
At this point my eyes start rolling around in their sockets like the tumblers on a slot machine, naturally coming up double dollar signs - and that's bad, 'cause it doesn't mean "big money for me!", but rather, that somebody at the garage is going to get a little extra-special bonus in their stocking this year, courtesy, moi.
So, here it is, Tuesday night, and me all grumbley and mumbley, because I'm now looking at spending roughly four hours taking public transit across the water to downtown Bellevue, walking about a mile to the house in what the Meteorologists in these parts laughingly refer to as "light showers" (translation: "it'll keep this up all day-and-night, but the good news is, nobody's house is going to float away"), banging on the neighbor's door to get the key, administering to The Bigster, then turning around and going through the whole process in reverse so as to get home at something resembling a decent hour, just so I can walk in the door and listen to MY cats complain about, "where have YOU been? We're starvin' here!", AND probably get yet another in what seems to be an unbroken string of lousy nights of sleep to boot.
I tells ya', it's just enough to make me go all "Bah Humbug!" at the most innocuous sign of Holiday cheerfulness.
But, I hadn't quite counted on the precocious three year-old traveling with her father on the crowded #556 route from the U-District. Based on overheard snippets of conversation, daddy & moppet had evidentally spent the afternoon engaged in a variety of quality time activities, one of which included the purchase of a gellato flavor appropriately entitled, "Caribou Crunch". Smallish person, not yet of an age to understand the subtleties of Consumer Marketing, was under the impression that a.) she had eaten actual frozen caribou, and b.) that all caribou tastes like crunchy chocolate. Okay, gotta hand it to her, it was rather cute, an adjective I'm not especially prone to use, but for once the occasion seemed to fit. And clearly, given the spontaneous, barely concealed smirks of my fellow passengers, I wasn't the only one thinking this.
But, what really sent the whole episode over the line into full-blown, break-out-into-ear-to-ear grinning, was when our Little Entertainer started into an a capella (and surprising on-key) rendition of "You Are My Sunshine", which she kept up for about five minutes, singing like the Dickens, seranading the tiny stuffed kitten (whom one apparently addresses as, "little kitty") jammed into Pop's coat pocket.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, You make me happy, when skies are gray, You'll never know dear, how much I love you, Please don't take my sunshine away."
I mean, when you're exposed to that level of Cosmic-Ray blast Holiday Cheer - coming from a small, curley-headed, all pink assessorized right-down-to-the-mittens child, I defy even the most cold-hearted, grinchy SOB to not feel their heart grow at least three sizes too big.
Afterwards, one of the commuters sitting across the aisle from me was heard to whisper, "I wish she would have sung that yesterday. Maybe today would have turned out better."
I'm sure she was just referring to the weather, but considering my own situation, I couldn't help adding a silent, "Amen, sister!" of my own. Because, you know, no matter how inconvenient all this is, it could be a LOT worse.
My local cinematheque held their annual holiday party last night, and naturally, amid the celebratory food & beverage, rampaging rug-rats, and speechifying, they showed kitschy, retro baby-boomer holiday programs. You know the type: Sonny & Cher sing-along with Captain Kangaroo; Gumby & Pokey accidentally kidnap Charles Dickens - that sort of thing.
But, the pace day resistance of the evening was the airing of a grainy, 12th generation bootleg copy of a long-lost gem from the late '70's, the much whispered about, but seldom seen "Star Wars Holiday Special".
Yes, friends, a "Star Wars" holiday special.
I vaguely remember having seen this during my freshman year of college, but recall not making it all the way through its two-hour length. After watching it again nearly 30 years later, it was easy to see why: friends, it's bad. I mean BAD. Not "good" bad, but, embarrassingly, painfully, mind-scorchingly bad. So bad you can understand why George Lucas once stated he wished he could track down and destroy every copy in existence by smashing them repeatedly with a baseball bat.
I'm not going to torture you with the details, but suffice to say, any holiday program that includes not only musical numbers by Bea Arthur and Carrie Fisher, a cheesy power-pop anthem by Jefferson Starship (sans Grace Slick, who for once was probably thankful the drugs kicked in before that recording session), but which requires the audience to be fluent in Wookieese in order to follow the plot (something about Chewbacca trying to get home to his family in time to celebrate some non-denominational holiday called "Life Day") was just doomed from the start - even if every kid on the planet with access to a television was probably watching the thing.
Needless to say, I rapidly lost interest after the first of Harvey Korman's three unfunny Peter Sellers-ish cameos, although I did occasionally flit back in for a few minutes at a time (because some genius decided the screening room where it was showing would be the ideal location for the snack tables) and managed to subject myself to additional excrutiating moments such as: Diahann Caroll singing a sultry love song to a geriatric, snaggle-toothed "grandpa Wookiee" saddled with the unfortunate (albeit probably accurate) nickname of "Itchy"; Art Carney as an intergalactic home-delivery porn peddler; and poor Mark Hamill, whose recently broken nose was so heavily made up it seemed to float about six inches in front of the rest of his face.
But, the Bea Arthur number was what finally did me in. That, and the fact that the food had run out. Thankfully, this spared me from watching Carrie Fisher open her mouth, or from suffering through Harrison Ford's Han Solo suddenly being reduced to the most dismal, touchie-feelie, I-just-gotta-give-every-wookiee-I-see-a-great-big-HUG! wimp you could possibly imagine.
Although, really it's better if you don't.
One thing the experience reiterated for me, however, was that, like the contents of sacred arks and about half the entries on Warren Ellis' website, some things are just not meant to be seen by human eyes.
Mr. Lucas, if you're out there, I've found another copy for you to destroy.
When I came in to the office this morning, the normally bracing environment was downright unbearably chilly. We're talking, so-cold-I-warmed-my-hands-inside-the-refrigerator chilly. Turns out our normally cranky thermostat completely gave up the ghost sometime during the night.
So, the guy from McKinstry came in today, and after spending most of the afternoon trying to remap the HVAC system from the basement, he finally traced down the problem and proceeded to remove the now ex-thermostat. However, he didn't have a replacement with him, and so he'd have to go back to his shop and return tomorrow to finish the job.
In the meantime, there are two wires sticking out of the wall where the box used to be. When I want heat, I attach a double-ended alligator clip to the wires to complete the circuit and - viola! - heat comes out of my office vent!
No joke. That's what one local TV station has already dubbed it:
Well, it actually is snowing outside my office window right now; moderate precip, but on the wet side, so currently nothing is sticking. Temp appears to be in the mid '30's, although it's probably a bit lower than that due to wind-chill. Needless to say, one of the people in my office is already making with the "I have to leave - now!" noises.
Now, I've got the little TV in my office turned on for the inevitable media over-reaction and --
Hey! I didn't know Ellen Degeneres had a talk show!
Apologies for the light posting the past couple of weeks, but I've been engaged in fending off a quagmirish, viral hit-and-run insurgency (thanks SOOOOO much Yellow Dog, whom I totally blame, since he's the only other sick person I was around before I came down with it) that has been attacking my nasal passages and upper respiratory system for the past two and a-half weeks. It hasn't been pretty, let me assure you.
Otherwise, things here in the Upper Left Hand Corner are pretty much same-old, same-old. As you probably heard, the Good Citizens of This (mostly) Fair Burgh took a fifth vote on our much beleaguered monorail, this time finally giving in to the downtown developers, the Mayor's office, and the "but we've already got a monorail!" naysayers to pound the final nails in its financial coffin. A sad story, with an ironic coda: last week our 43 year-old "monorail to nowhere", the quaint tourist ride leftover from the 1962 World's Fair may have collisioned itself out of existence when the two cars sideswiped each other on a particularly narrow curve just north of the downtown terminus. NOW, the anti-monorail bunch is beginning to infer that we should get rid of this as well, since clearly it's a "Menace to Society", and frankly the pillars and tracks are such a civic eyesore, because they block some yuppie's view of the sixteen Starbuck's across Fifth Avenue from their overpriced clapboard condo.
Oh yes, and if one is to believe the incessant reportage from the news media (AKA, The People Who Pay My Salary) Seattle is braced for the impending onslaught - AT ANY MOMENT! - of "Snowstorm 2005!" a deluge of "unprecedented proportions", which in the local dialect translates as roughly, "we might get one or two inches, and most of that will be gone before the morning commute". Still, intrepid mobile camera crews are poised at strategic locations throughout the city's higher elevations, just waiting to scoop each other with those memorable images of the first fleeting dribbles of frozen water falling from the sky like some Biblical Sign Of The Apocalypse, which will in appropriate fashion result in multiple vehicle skid-outs on the freeway, reduced-to-nonexistent public transportation services, and many, many office workers playing the "but, I just can't get out of my driveway!" card, even though pretty much everybody knows it's just a lame excuse to squeeze an extra day off out of their employers.
Yep, that's how you can tell it's almost Winter around here.