How I Learned to Smoke

Selfie, 1979-ish
My parents pressed me to learn to drive. I took Driver’s Ed, and was always chose to sit at the broken simulator during class, so I entertained myself when the lights dimmed by screaming the teacher’s name in a high, weird voice and flooring it. With the pedal all the way down in my fake driver’s cockpit, and me in the back of the classroom, I didn’t even steer and it didn’t even matter.  Then, I only just barely passed the driving portion of my test, having completely failed the parallel parking bit. My dad loved to drive and had been letting me do the manual shifter for years (he would tell me when); he took me to the parking lot at Stix to practice, and he seemed calm about it. No way would Mom have done it.
I got my license on my 16th birthday, a hot, humid June afternoon after my final exams. I went to private school, and we got dressed up for exams: I wore a red calico wrap skirt and brown clogs. My legs were already tanned because our pool had been open for a week and I could float in a raft and study in the sun. I liked doing two things at once, like sunbathing and studying.
The car my parents had for me to drive was a silver and white Chevy Blazer. They bought it to replace the ‘72 royal blue Chevy van. I could barely see over the dashboard of the Blazer. The other cars had manual transmissions that I would conquer in later months. The Blazer was my car to drive that first summer with my license. I think we got our first microwave oven as a gift with purchase with the Blazer.
The person who taught me to smoke was the dirty-blond girl—the only other white girl I worked with at Arby’s. There were two night managers, a tired and blunt woman and a surly, bored guy who were never there at the same time, and come to think of it, they were never around anyway. Much of the time it was one of them and me: the only two white people who worked with the whole night shift. It was the first time I’d ever been the only white person anywhere. Arby’s wasn’t normal fast food like hamburgers; it was sliced meat sandwiches, and one night I saw one of the guys who worked in the back making sandwiches almost cut off his thumb when he was cleaning the meat slicer. We had to do extra mopping that night. That whole summer I never learned to be fast enough for the lunch rush, so I only worked the night shift.
I did learn a lot of different shit that summer. I learned how to sweep up every last sesame seed from under the mats. We had to offer potato cakes because we didn’t sell fries, and some customers would just stare and stare, unbelieving. I learned that you throw away sponges like every other day because they get fucking gross. I learned to punch a clock and use a cash register and count change and how you never wanted to be short. Once I was over by like $21 and I just handed off my drawer that way; it did not occur to me until later that I could have pocketed the difference, or that my manager would.  I learned to clean the soft serve ice cream machine and on break I learned to smoke.
I had hit the drive-through teller at the bank with the door of the Blazer. I had, like, the German exchange student Nina in the car with me, and maybe someone else, too, and the damage was well over $300 and that was that. The next week my mother sent me to interview with some creepy old guy she knew and then a few days later I was working the night shift at Arby’s. It was some sort of bargain that I was supposed to work and pay my parents back for the damage I did to the Blazer. I do not remember paying them back. I do remember getting my first paychecks. Before this fast-food job I had only worked as a babysitter, where the parents slipped me a wad of cash that I pocketed uncounted.
I wore a polyester uniform and an Arby’s nametag and I was supposed to pin my hair up under the hat. Sometimes the other people who worked there would speak to me and I would have no idea what they were saying. Before this job I knew there was what we called black St. Louis, where African American people lived, and white St. Louis, which had its areas that I knew, like Clayton or Ladue or even Frontenac where Saks was, and the areas I didn’t, like South St. Louis. We had a maid, Gwen, who came once a week, and the mailman, but outside of them and Billy M. in my elementary school or the three kids in my class in high school, I only knew white people. I had a primitive understanding that African American people lived in a separate and parallel St. Louis to the one where I lived, but I did not realize how things worked in the places where white people and African American people overlapped. It seemed remarkable and stupid to the point of ridiculous to 16 year old me that almost everyone who worked at Arby’s was black but the all managers were white.
Smoking was easy. You put the cigarette in your lips, but you tried to keep it dry. I lit it with a match because if my parents caught me with a lighter they’d know I was smoking. You shook out the match with your one hand and puffed. You dropped the match on the ground and took the cigarette out of your mouth and blew smoke. You could hold it between two fingers, like a tight peace sign, or your thumb and index finger, like a guy. You could tap off your ash or flick at the filter with your thumbnail. Smoking was the perfect thing to do during a ten minute break at Arby’s. You had to stand in the parking lot anyway, because the break room didn’t have a window so taking a break in the break room in it was like taking a break in the bathroom, without the toilet. Also, I had to clean the bathrooms.
MUofU1987smokes
Smoking at the University of Utah, 1987
I smoked secretly all the time after that. I loved smoking. I loved smoking and driving even more than smoking or driving alone. Lighting up was such a grand and pleasurable gesture. I smoked through college and then grad school, and then quit. My grandparents smoked so much that my 29-year-old wedding dress my grandmother made still smells slightly of smoke; it rests folded in special tissue in an acid-free conservation box. Sometimes, I still smoke in my dreams.

Shortcut

On the way home, we were retracing our route down the Taconic, in that No-Man’s-Land of Dutchess County almost all the way up into Columbia County, where the roads are little gray squiggles on a map and the lakes are real. Further south, it’s all reservoirs, enslaved to the water demands of The City. My car’s navigation system had assigned us the route where we’d be doubling back at the end, with a sharp, pointed “v.” I was thinking there had to be a shortcut. I’ve never trusted the navigation system in the BMW anyway.
I had had only one beer at the bar right around 8 o’clock. I’d had a Coke around 10. When we left it was probably 11:15, although that’s a guess.
Traffic was sparse. It was a Saturday night. I came to what I thought was just the road we needed and cut across the other lane. My husband was on a bit of a nod himself, having had plenty of beer and cultivated a regular disinterest in issues of navigation. It was a narrow, snowy, one-lane road, with a small, green, rectangular sign: Seasonal Access, Road Maintained Apr.1 – Oct. 1. Something like that. It looked like it has been plowed at some point and had about six inches of fresher snow on top of that. There were tire tracks through it, and, down the middle of the road, a set of dog footprints, made by a huge, trotting woodland beast.
It was perfectly beautiful. Snow lit the floor of the woods. Trees surrounded us. The path was narrow and straight.
Woods in Winter, Dutchess County, NY
I cracked wise about how this might turn out to be a terrible idea.
He said, “You’re fine.”
I have snow tires. It’s an all-wheel drive car. He was probably right. There had been confusion over our bar tab. He had had three beers, maybe four. When we paid the check they charged us for four, but they missed the Coke, so we over-paid, assuming they missed a beer, too.
I said, “I just got that full adrenaline rush, the one when you’re like, scared shitless.”
“You’re fine.”
The road descended into a valley, so I slowed the car even more. We hadn’t yet lost traction, though the way was very noisy with the snow under our tires. My car is no SUV so it doesn’t have high clearance.
“I’m starting to worry about the way out of this,” I said. “What if they’ve plowed over and left a lot of snow?”
“You’re fine.”
“What if we have to back all the way out?” I asked. “I don’t want to have to back all the way back through this.”
“You’re fine.”
When we saw that the road rises to meet Route 199, and the depth of the snow at the top, deposited by plows just as I had feared, but made much worse by the dip in terrain, he said, calmly, “Punch it.”
I punched it, hard.
We made it most of the way up before we began to slip sideways and to the left, and sort of backwards. With some encouragement I backed up as far as I could without getting even more stuck. I tried again: more slipping, spinning, and sliding.
“I can’t do this.”
He hopped out and walked around the car. The road was black in both directions, but I knew it was199. A single car went by. If they saw our headlights shining from below the grade of the road, they didn’t care and they didn’t slow.  He examined all four tires, the snow, and the whole situation. I took off my seatbelt and climbed over to the passenger’s side.
He got behind the wheel. “I think we’re fucked,” he said simply, gunning the engine.
The car lurched forward, the tires spinning, and we slid sideways some more. He got out and looked at the situation again. He got back in, backed it up, and made another go of it, this time wedging us on the other side of the road, setting off all the automatic seat-belt warning tones. He got out and reassessed.
“We’re fucked,” he said, kicking the snow off his shoes and getting back in.
“Should I call AAA?” I asked, digging out my mobile phone.
“Yes,” he said, putting the car in gear.
“Put on your seatbelt this time,” I said.
I couldn’t find AAA in the contacts on my phone, so I pulled out my wallet to get the number off my membership card. I didn’t have that, either.
Ok, I thought. I can just look it up.
But of course I couldn’t look it up because I had no service. I looked at the clock. It was11:45 p.m., on a Saturday night. We were on an unmaintained service road, who-knows-where, stuck in the snow. Only one other car had gone by since we got stuck, and they didn’t see us or slow. We were going to have to get out and walk or wait and flag someone down.
I was now intensely upset with myself. We were not getting out of this easily. Before this moment, I might have shrugged off the error. Oh, whoops! Right? No. I am supposed to be a responsible adult. Really, I’m just a jackass, thinking I can just drive anywhere I want in my fancy car with my fancy snow tires.
He put the car into low gear, and was gunning the engine. There was acrid tire smoke and dark exhaust swirling up from us. The car was moving, a bit, here and there. Another car went by, in the opposite direction. Again, they did not slow. Suddenly with a lurch we were almost at the crest of the rise. He braked and got out.
Sometimes when I’m upset or angry or frustrated I just cry. I was always a cry-baby as a kid and was teased mercilessly for it. I always thought I had deserved it, the teasing. But now, here in the woods, I don’t cry. Mostly, I just felt really stupid. Why did I think it was a good idea to take an unmaintained service road as a shortcut in the middle of the night in winter when there’s a foot of snow on the ground?
He was out there stomping around, kicking snow and sizing up the situation, stomping and kicking. I opened the door and offered to help, “I have boots on.”
“No, I got it.”
He jumped back in. I insisted on the seatbelt again. Shifting to low, he really gunned it. The engine roared, the tires spun, the snow groaning and crunching and fighting us as hard as it could.
And then we were up on the pavement, tires squealing and spinning, snow and ice flying, and we were absolutely free.
“I gotta pull over. I might be over the limit.”
“Ok, but not here in the middle of the road.”
He gestured to a bit of shoulder.
“No shoulders,” I said. “We need to find like a road. Or a driveway.”
Up around the next bend we found a dead end road and traded places.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I said.
“I though we were fucked,” he said.
We went another quarter mile and I realized we were going the wrong way. We turned around again and made it home in about ten or fifteen more minutes.
It was, actually, a shortcut.

The Landlords: Pruning

I thought I was done telling storiesabout the Landlords, but I ran into Her on the driveway this weekend and Her look of amazement made me realize I wasn’t done telling stories about them.  We have lived in the house 256 days as of this past weekend, but we persist in feeling we keep surprising them by being here.  Because of more tree planting (yes), His car was parked halfway up the driveway, with about 6 feet of room to get by.  One of their cats was in the driver’s side window, and at first I mistook it for Him. I crept slowly down the drive, trying to understand what I was looking at, and She asked if I could get by in my car (which I couldn’t).  I mistook her question for a joke since it was obvious that I couldn’t.
There is a large mature flowering dogwood tree between the Big Red Barn where we live and the garage where the Landlords live. It is no more than thirty or so feet tall, but broad and substantial. It was damaged pretty heavily by the snowfall in late October, and now shows that removing the broken limbs late last fall was not enough. A ladder was propped in the tree a number of weeks ago now, and it has not moved as He tries to correct with pruning a process which looks to me like an ordinary old tree death. Throughout the weekend I heard sneezing coming from the tree, either because He has allergies or because he has a cold. 

Pruning is a year-round hobby for the Landlords, along with splitting and stacking firewood by hand.  There is a large maple at the top of the driveway growing out from a crotch made by an old dead stump and the piled-rock wall. It is the sort of volunteer tree that grows in an over-looked spot until one day it drops a huge limb and traps your cars on the other side.  It has a lop-sided growing habit, extremely vertical branches, and a rotten-looking core. If it were a tree on my property I would have it removed.  One weekend, the Landlord took it upon Himself to prune it, highlighting its inherent unattractiveness. He then used twine to tie several of the lower, live branches so that they make a better angle with the tree. The result was extremely startling for me, since it suddenly became impossible to see to the left from my car as I emerged from the driveway. Before I had a chance to say anything, though, the deer came along and ate every single green leaf on that branch, so it is now easy to see through.

In between pruning and planting sessions this weekend, a repair was made to the garbage hutch, which is at the top of the driveway, across from the sad ugly volunteer maple, facing the road, for the second time. Within only a few days, the first repair had become a dangerous piece of trim with sharp protruding screws every ten inches along its length. Seeing no new support for the lid, I have reason to believe this repair may remain solid until mid-June.
The garbage hutch stands in front of a large stand of mature bamboo.  This bamboo collapsed under the weight of the wet snow in October, and lay across the driveway like a fully-loaded snow-flinging trebuchet, but stood up again when a willing nitwit (me) shook off the snow. (“Shook off the snow,” dear reader, is a euphemism; it really means, “got a lot of snow down her sleeves and coat.”)  Now, because of the massive root structure established under the bamboo, numerous spring shoots have emerged.  Young bamboo is pointed, and can pass through many layers of leaf litter or simple impale it and carry it up with itself like a hat on its head.  Because the bamboo is at the property line, I am not sure if its presence is the Landlords’ doing, and I doubt it.
I followed Him out this morning, as he sped up the driveway, demonstrating the revision He is making to the shape of the driveway, and I now understand the new path in the grass. He also veered off the driveway at the top, plowing through all the young bamboo sprouts with his car. From behind it looked like He was careening out of control, but in reality, he was doing some more pruning.

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.

An Account of our Adventure in the Snow Storm, 29 October 2011

We left the barn about 12:30, stopping for lunch and gas. I remarked that the gas station was full at every pump, but it seemed like a Saturday-thing, not a storm-thing. I suggested we stop at a grocery store on the way home since they are few and far between out here. Later, I would catch a lot of grief for making this stop. When we emerged from the store it was snowing hard, and we drove home on unplowed highways. 
There were three different jack-knifed big-rigs on I-84, and a number of slow-downs for these obstacles and an equal number of rolled-over passenger cars. Many people were able to drive skillfully in the snow, but there were notable exceptions. A woman in a rear-wheel-drive Lexus sedan was all over the road, passing cars and aggressively maneuvering for a better position until she hit a snowy uphill patch. As we passed her, she had begun fruitlessly spinning her tires and sliding backwards. It was not going to be ending well for her. Another car I remember passing as it was losing control was one of those tiny Honda mini-SUVs; this driver had obviously chosen the “no-traction package.” 
Everywhere I have ever lived people complain about the local drivers. In St. Louis, there is a peculiar rolling stop drivers employ at stop-signs. In Vermont, there were the Mad-Max style jacked up pick-ups you steered clear of. In Utah, there were unnaturally slow drivers, and a courtesy left turn that drivers would wave you permission to take at the beginning of the light's rotation. In California, there were those who would speed up as soon as you signaled, preventing you from moving into their lane. In Seattle, everyone complains that “people can’t drive in the rain” or “people can’t drive in snow.” I have lived in New York almost four months, but in that time I have driven over nine thousand miles. Drivers in the city are aggressive, but I find them largely competent and fairly predictable. Outside of the city, there seems to be a general disregard for staying in one’s lane or obeying the posted speed limit. Overall, I would say that people are not so bad at driving. No one is quite as good as they think they are, and other people are not as bad as others complain. 
Once off the freeway we had more real excitement to negotiate. Trees were losing their snow-laden limbs in the direction of least resistance, typically onto the road. In some places the limbs had not even fallen yet, but were bowed nearly to the ground under the weight of the wet heavy snow. There were downed power lines, and the most dramatic accident: a car, nose down in a road-side ditch, with a right rear wheel two and a half feet above the pavement.
Finally home, we found our unplowed gravel driveway was impassable due to the grove of bamboo planted at the top. It was pressed to the ground under the weight of the snow. 





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.”

Our Irene

Sunday evening we made it home with equal parts of technology, stubbornness, and the kind of stupidity that is sometimes called courage.  The cat was soon sprawled on the table, having finally stopped meowing. The dogs were twitching in their sleep on the couch, dreaming of the lightning and thunder they heard that morning, or all the dogs they played with, or whatever things dogs dream of.

We had had weekend plans for a while, and went ahead, leaving a day’s more extra food for the cat and warning the dog kennel that our dogs might need to stay until Monday.  Even though cats are independent, I felt a little sad and worried about the cat, all alone in the apartment, and I did wonder about the consequences of the power going out, high winds, and flooding.  A few weeks ago, we had been invited to spend the weekend upstate with new friends. Now, the weekend had nearly arrived and (then) Hurricane Irene was approaching. The media presented scary scenarios involving 120 mph winds whipping through the tall buildings of Manhattan, flash-flooding in the streets and blocks of power outages. Upstate with new friends seemed like a better option than riding out the storm on our own in a tiny, temporary apartment.
Friday afternoon, after dropping the dogs at day care, we headed out around 3 p.m., but found gridlock within blocks of all the Manhattan escape routes. We let the GPS navigate and we made our way north, taking two hours to get out of the city and up onto a freeway.  Arriving after dark, we had a nice dinner and rushed to bed. 
Saturday was pretty nice weather-wise, although very humid, and our hosts provided pleasant and comfortable array of food and activities. Sunday morning, we slept in a bit, but woke to house-shaking thunder and lightning.  Soon we found the storm had been downgraded, and we put on our gung-ho caps and decided it would probably be okay to make our way back to the city.  Had we been paying attention, we would have also learned that people in Columbia County had been asked to stay off the roads.
We drove from Chatham, New York to Pine Plains, hoping to arrive in time for our usual Sunday riding lessons. It was raining really hard the whole way, but it was not windy, and the roads were mostly empty.  I think most people had more sense than we did. 
The further we went, the scarier it got.  We saw drainage ditches overflowing with fast-moving water, ponds that had doubled in size, roaring creeks and rivers, and standing and flowing water on roads. Within ten miles of our destination, we drove to a spot where the Taconic State Parkway had just been closed.  It was flooded on both sides with the scary brown water you never want to drive across.  The gung-ho caps were flung off, and we started arguing about how to proceed.  I am always very stubborn about turning around, but not turning around was not an option.  We turned around.  Then, we took the first safe-looking road we could find to get off the Taconic, and let the car’s GPS do the rest. The barn was damp and drippy but still had power.  I think they were somewhat surprised to see us.
After riding we visited our oldest son at Bard College, where classes were scheduled to start Monday.  While much of campus has no power, his dorm room was an exception as of yesterday.  There was still a lot of water everywhere, and some downed trees.  We tried to leave in time to make it to Manhattan without it being completely dark. The GPS had to re-route due to traffic information four times, and we made it to the city with only a few scary moments.  It was just getting dark, but our power was on.  The only casualty of the storm we saw in our building Sunday night was the elevator, which we already did not trust.  It was parked on the ground floor, with the mysterious letter “C” where a number should have appeared on the panel. The light was on in the elevator car, and the door was opening and closing, opening and closing.