Illustration courtesy of Max Russell Berkes
It was from the mid-70s, and we pronounced the name, “Hor-nay,” like it was French. It had been my grandfather’s. He died while I was at college freshman year. The car was a vivid shade of dark green. In the end it was sold, but it was mine to drive for the summer of 1982. Summers in St. Louis are hot and humid, but the AC on the Hornet worked great. It even had a special setting on the AC dial, a few clicks past “MAX” it said “DESERT ONLY.” And it even had electric windows.
You’d be foolish to take that vehicle to the desert, though. It had so much trouble accelerating up hills that the engine would actually cut out completely. So there you’d be, on a freeway entrance ramp, at a dead stop, cranking the ignition hoping it would catch, the motor giving an irregular “wowp, wow…WOWP,” cars piling up behind you. Once we got it home the plan was always to park it on the street, slightly uphill from the house.
It was perfectly ugly, that AMC Hornet, but not quite as exuberantly and hilariously ugly as the Pacer of the same vintage, so it didn’t even have the cachet of being the most ridiculous car on the road. The shifter was on the steering column, and “P R N D L” was written in dial on the dash, but above that, in case you needed to know, it said, in wide pale letters, “TORQUE COMMAND.”
My favorite thing to do in the Hornet was go run errands with my friend E., and pull up next to other people, roll down her window, the motor in the door faintly squealing and groaning as it unsmoothly opened, and shout something ridiculous like, “Hey, good looking!” and drive away slowly, laughing. Driving away fast wasn’t an option, because that would kill the engine, too. E. had to get the window to close again by pressing the button and pushing the window up with her hand flattened on the glass. Otherwise, the window would not close all the way.

The previous summer I turned down my Aunt Mary’s old tan Chevy Nova. It could have been mine and it would have been the coolest car I ever drove. I wouldn’t go near it. The Nova was sold to the mailman. The Hornet was sold to E.’s family, and when I think of it I hear her laugh, still, many years later.

The Landlords: Tree-Planting Mania

You never really see them together, and in fact, the Landlords often arrive in separate cars. There are two ways you know they have arrived: either because you hear the barking, barking or because you see the silver car careening down the hill, driving on the grass across the lawn. It’s a circuit, you see, and it is how He arrives at the property.  We are surrounded by trees on all sides, but there is a track He drives, in a predictable and bumpy loop, mostly just inside the trees, and in all weather, and at any time of day or night. She drives a white one and He drives a silver one. Hers is newer and in good repair. His is battered on both ends, and has bits held onto the body by wire and that special handyman stickum.
Where all our water went
They are of a retired age, but maybe they have professional responsibilities that keep them in the city during the week. They are professionals, and both have advanced degrees. The Landlords usually show up Thursday nights, and stay through Monday. I send the rent check to a nice address in The City, on the Upper West Side.  (You should know by now that “The City” is New York City, which is where we should be living now,  but are not. It is where we will be living in the fall.) The Landlords have a teeny-tiny apartment above the garage, next door to this, the large red barn house.  Everything I know about their building is from the weekend in October when we stole their firewood.  We have no garage privileges, no matter how much we are paying for this house.
Buckets and new trees
Since we moved in last September they have been around on the weekend every weekend, and they have gone from one barking, barking dog to two barking, barking dogs.  Having a Country Place is something people do to survive city living. Our town is an easy enough commute to The City, so is not a bad place to have a Country Place as long as you don’t need to actually be in The Country (because this is actually The Suburbs).  I think it must be a relief for the Landlords’ dogs to come to The Country so they can bark with impunity.  I wonder, though, if they produce the same barking, barking in The City. I also wonder if the second dog was obtained in an effort to improve the first one.
When they are not driving around the property, walking their barking, barking dogs or burning wood in their woodstove, the Landlords have a passion for planting trees. I cannot report on how many trees they have planted this spring, but they were very busy at it for a few weeks there, with new trees going in every day.  We did not pay very much attention to it until the Saturday when we were getting dressed to go to a dinner party and we did not have enough water pressure to take a shower. All of our water was going to a new tree, just south of our house. 
It felt like there was some urgency to the tree-planting mania, what with the hoses needing to be dragged around, buckets requiring stacking, moving, refilling and lining up, holes wanting digging and refilling, mulch having to be purchased and delivered and applied.  The silver car was hard at work all over the property. He was very busy.
Some of the new trees are snugged in next to the driveway at the top.  You cannot see our house from the road at all, owing to the shape of the hill more than the trees.  Now that these new little trees have been planted, it seems clear that there is a plan to put evergreens along the driveway from the top to the bottom. The driveway is a quarter mile long and the trees flank the topmost fifth of that quarter mile. The new pines are perhaps twelve feet from the more mature pines on the other side of the drive, and in just a few years will create a perfect, all-around scrub-brush system for scratching the sides and tops of all entering and exiting vehicles.
There is now a hose stretched from the building where they spend weekends in the teeny-tiny  apartment above the garage all the way up the quarter mile long driveway to reach the new trees. I drive over this hose twice in the morning when I take the 8th grader to school, twice if I go to the grocery store, twice if I go to the post office, and twice if I drop anyone at the train station, and twice if I pick anyone up at the train station. The hose has remained stretched along the driveway for weeks, and soon I will have squashed it flat from driving over it.
I never see or hear the Landlords leave. Sometimes a car remains behind, so it seems like they are still here. The absence of barking is a state of quiet akin to having no headache.

A Story from the Weekend Before Last

We had turkey chili for dinner. We finished dinner. We were sitting around the table talking. The youngest kid got bored with us and went to his room. He heard a “pop.” We didn’t hear a “pop,” because we were still talking. The lights went out.
We have had three power outages since we moved here. The first power outage was a result of Tropical Storm Irene, and began before we even moved in.  We were delayed in our being able to move in, so that we had to stay in a hotel the first few days of school. It was a terrible way to start the school year. The school year has been rough, too, with nasty Spanish teachers and confrontational attendance ladies who sometimes require a note just because they are clueless.  It’s all part of the long bad vacation.
Last time the power went out, it was because of a freakish snow storm in late October. This time, it was predicted to get down to about 7F overnight, as if in solidarity with the earlier, unusually cold weekend in October. Because we had heard the “pop,” the Relentless Troubleshooter called NYSEG  to report the outage. They were confused. As it was, we turned out to be only one of two houses affected, the other being our landlords, in the garage apartment next door.
A crew was dispatched, and it was determined that someone in a car had smashed into the utility pole that serves our two houses. Man Landlord (who is eccentric) insisted that we contact the police. The Relentless Troubleshooter called the local police to inform them that someone had hit our utility pole and driven away.  He was asked several tired and irritated questions like “Did the pole hit the house?” and “Did you see it?” before the crowning achievement of questions: “What do you want us to do about it?”
We were told that a North Salem policeofficer would come and have a look, but we never saw him.
Overnight, it was very, very cold, and the Relentless Troubleshooter kept the fires going in all three woodstoves. We put the food that needed to stay frozen outside. By morning the power was restored and a new pole had been installed at the top of the driveway. As of this writing, a little over two weeks later, the old pole had not been removed yet.  The Relentless Troubleshooter and other interested parties went up to make an inspection, and concluded that a small, red car with bald tires had done it (based on tracks in the mud, paint on the pole, and broken bits on the ground). That a small car could drive away after breaking a utility pole surprises me. The Man Landlord (who is eccentric) believes that the addition of a new house nearby has changed how the road looks on the curve, and while he hates the look of a big yellow arrow sign, he believes a big yellow arrow sign might be in order. 
When I was in elementary school, my father, who hated speeders who drove too fast through Davis Place, got elected to the board of neighborhood trustees.  He pushed the effort for speed bumps to be installed, in addition to having the gates to the minor streets of the subdivision closed on alternate weeks. One speed bump was added right in front of our house.
I think the reason he wanted people to slow down on Davis Drive was that he liked to play catch with my brother.  Dad would stand on the island in front of our house and my brother would stand in our yard.  People came barreling down the street between them. What he did not realize until the speed bump was added was that now there was the sound of braking, followed by the ker-thump, ker-thump of the car going over the speed bump, and then the acceleration away. Now it was much noisier, cars lingered longer, and it was not an improvement.
Today, there do not seem to be speed bumps in Davis Place anymore. At least, there were none the last time I was there.

Safety Patrol

I try to get out for a walk every day.  There is an almost-three-mile loop from my front door on a country road with neither stripes nor shoulder.  The town speed limit is posted as 30 mph. This is loosely interpreted as whatever speed you will go.  Most cars seem to be aware of me and my leashed dogs, slow a bit (though never a lot), and give us room.  I have only had two scary encounters so far, the first happening during the first week of school.  It was a woman with a blond ponytail who drives a black BMW SUV and since she was on the phone she never did see me or my dogs. The second was this week, when the FedEx ground truck went by so fast Captain dove into the drainage ditch at the side of the road and cowered there, crouching.   
I do see other walkers, mostly women, sometimes with dogs and sometimes chatting and walking vigorously in pairs. There is one young woman who walks down the middle of the road, and who was not wearing shoes the first two times I saw her.  She has long, straight brown hair and bangs and large eyes that don’t look at you.  She wears clothes I can only describe as completely ordinary. But then she doesn’t have shoes on. With her is a dog that I would call a tan and white pit-bull mix. It wears no collar, and she carries no leash.  We saw them the very first time we went for a walk. The dog is out of control but friendly. The woman doesn’t really talk, not even about the dogs.  I gave her a nickname: Gandhi, pronounced “Candy.”
Two days ago, the dogs and I headed off to check the road-kill (which is another story completely), but found the road was blocked for repairs.  Yesterday, I passed the repair crew, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Cherry sneezed at the smell of the hot asphalt, and I got a chuckle out of that. But that day, we headed down the road past the stable with the intention of turning back at the half-way point.  I was thinking about the Haves and the Have-Nots on this road (which is also another story completely), when the vet pulled out onto the road next to me after a call to the stable.  He pulled up alongside of me and warned me, with concern in his voice, to look out for a pit-bull which is being walked loose and has been allowed to chase horses. “Don’t want it to be a problem for you.”

No York, No York

Of course you walk or ride the subway in this city. Or you take a cab or a bus. People live far away and ride the train in to the city every day.   It is thrilling to step on a Metro North train on a platform in sleepy suburban Bedford or White Plains or Rye and step off in Grand Central Station in the heart of bustling mid-town Manhattan.  Even closer to that too-good-to-be-true feeling is taking a comfier, quieter, and more expensive Amtrak train from Rhinecliff to Penn Station, with a view of the Hudson almost the whole way.  Some activities, though, require that a person still own a car. Owning a car means that a person needs parking.
Because we live temporarily in mid-town Manhattan, we had a number of options for choosing a garage, since there are a number nearby. We chose a 24-hour garage, since those that do not carry this designation are not open on Sundays.  Based on the number of cars that magically appear on our block on the weekends, when I guess it is legal to park on the street, I have reason to think that there are people who use these Monday-Saturday garages, and move their cars Saturday night and then again before 8 am on Monday morning. After six weeks of living here I still do not understand the parking rules for the streets of Manhattan.  Whatever the details of the parking rules of Manhattan streets, they are neither easy to find out nor easy to follow.  Apartments, too, have rules like this, like 28-day lease cycles, or pet weight limits, or condo owners who can sell the unit out from under you, or co-op boards that can turn you down as a resident because they don’t like you.
Our car is monthly parker number 58. When the car is parked, it is sometimes spirited to a deep parking dimension, and notice of needing the car must be given the night before. Calling an hour in advance of needing one’s car is only sometimes considered enough notice, and I was told last Tuesday, when I called and said I need the car at 1 pm that I couldn’t have it. I then asked for 2 pm, which was granted after the fellow on the phone consulted with someone else. For this level of service, we pay $375 per month.


The only non-stop flight from Seattle to Cleveland is a red-eye, departing Seattle at 10:50 pm and arriving about five hours later.  Even if I could sleep on a plane, which I can’t, five hours is not enough sleep.  I am pretty certain to be in a stupor for several days thanks to this experience.
Cleveland recently saw the completion of a large, glossy lavish car-rental terminal, in an industrial park about ten minutes from the actual airport.  The shuttle bus driver, hilarious in his own opinion, wanted to know why in the world we would leave Seattle to come to Ohio.  He also pointed out that we should enjoy the lavishness of the car-rental terminal in the five or so minutes we would be spending there.  I had reserved a full-size car, employing my husband’s strategy for “getting something decent.”  Of course, there were no full-size cars available, so I was offered an SUV for the same price. 
Navigating in Ohio is not especially difficult, though, and we arrived in the town of Wooster just about an hour after landing here.  Our “Modern Blue Pearl” Jeep Grand Cherokee, with 31,00 miles and a huge stain on the back seat is inoffensive from the driver’s perspective, although the tires screamed on most cloverleafs, and there was no figuring out the satellite radio.  As a position of principle, I find the entire SUV category to be rather offensive, being neither good to drive, good to park nor good to the planet, but my opinions are not interesting to many auto manufacturers.  I understand that even Mercedes has discontinued carrying wagons in favor of their uglier and mightier monstrosities (including, a RAV4 ripoff, some bulbous mini-van-ish things, and a military-themed assault vehicle started at $105,750).  Someday I would love to talk to a Mercedes-Benz strategist about what (if anything) they think goes on inside the car-buying mind of a wealthy American mom.
It was garbage collection day yesterday, which meant many piles of neatly bagged garbage on the curb, but also a few ripped-open piles of trash, and a bit of extra road-kill. We passed a gloriously fluffy dead red dog on the shoulder of a two-lane road, a recently squashed cat, a severed opossum, a flattened skunk and a matched set of gorgeous, gruesome giant dead rabbits being pecked at be an equally over-sized matched pair of crows.
It took three tries to check-in, owing to how early we were, and the front desk’s insistence that we were just too early to have a room.  We paid them back by parking in front and falling asleep in the Grand Cherokee, windows open, limbs hanging out.  When we were finally given access to our room, the manager had emerged to supervise the transaction. “What brings you to Ohio?” he asked.
I told him my middle son would be attending the College of Wooster in the fall.
“I have to ask,” he replied. “What would make you choose to come all the way from Washington to Ohio, just to go to a school like that?”
The middle son provided a thoughtful and honest answer.  I thought about roadkill.