My car is marked today with salt and strain from the Land of Lincoln as it sits in the best of all possible parking spots (Tuesday & Friday 7:30-8 AM; I parked on Sunday and don’t have to move till Friday), after a weekend drive to Chicago, where I heard Baby Dee play at the Empty Bottle, on the same bill as a marching band called Mucca Pazza (Mad Cow). Chicago is the headquarters of Dee’s record label, Drag City. Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago “city of the broad shoulders.” I would call it city of the huge potholes.
Mucca Pazza is fabulous and funny—they play everything from tubas to triangles, and everyone in the band wears a different marching-band uniform; they have cheerleaders, too. Unfortunately, it took a marching band to be heard over the roar of the bar crowd at the Empty Bottle. Dee did everything in her power to put on a good show, and succeeded with a discerning group near the stage, but was frustrated, and even cut short her gleeful encore number “I Am a Kinky Grizzly Bear with a Thing for Mormon Underwear.” I hope she had an easier time in Minneapolis and Seattle. I’m sure she will be a big hit tonight in Portland. I found a review of her new CD in The Badger, the school newspaper of the University of Wisconsin, and an item about her in a blog by John Donohue, of the New Yorker Goings On staff (January 31st), with a link to a series of video interviews in Brainwashed.
Meanwhile, back in the car, I discovered that my 1990 Honda Civic gets 355 highway miles to a tank of gas, or about thirty miles per gallon. I was aided in this discovery by my odometer, my owner’s manual (gas-tank capacity = 11.9 gallons), and the valet parking service of the Ambassador East Hotel (motto: Taking Parking Personally). I had thought of getting a G.P.S. for this trip, because, though it’s easy enough to zip across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on I-80, finding a specific address in an unfamiliar city, at rush hour, is one of my least favorite things to do in a car. But I had already made one auto upgrade: I had bought a portable CD player and an adapter that makes it possible to play CDs instead of cassettes on my car’s system and thereby opens a vastly wider repertoire of things to listen to on long trips, from the Traveling Wilburys to “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Also I had a passenger: Alex, a young drummer from Glasgow, who was meeting up with Dee and the rest of the band in Chicago and was happy to serve as my personal G.P.S. by reading aloud the directions I had printed out from Mapquest. One generation of technological improvements at a time, please.
It was a long trip, through the sodden fields of northwestern Ohio and frozen corn stubble of rural Indiana and past the black smokestacks of Gary, but our arrival at the hotel felt abrupt. There was not even time to grab the doughnuts out of the back seat before the doorman, a Jamaican in a caped uniform, took my car keys and ushered us through the revolving door into the lobby. There, after a little while, I rendezvoused with a friend from Wisconsin, who had gotten us a discount at this fancy hotel by booking through the Internet. Alex went off to the Empty Bottle by taxi, and everywhere we went for the rest of the day we walked through the slush or took a taxi. I did not see my car again until the next morning.
As someone who generally parks on the street, I am naturally suspicious of valet parking. A total stranger takes your keys and your car and leaves you standing there like a fool, staring at a piece of salmon-pink paper that says “Claim Check.” It cost $41 to park overnight in Chicago. After settling the bill, we gave our claim checks to the Jamaican doorman, who called the garage. In a little while, a valet pulled up in my car. I left it idling while we waited for my friend’s car. She was now my G.P.S.: the idea was that she would lead me through the streets of Chicago to I-90, where I’d go east and she’d go west. But when her car was delivered and I got in my car, ready to follow her, it wouldn’t go. I turned the key in the ignition, and it started, and then stalled. “Something is wrong,” I said, waving madly at my friend to stop. The valet parker got in and gave it a try, and it started jumping all over the place. “Stop!” I said. Something was terribly wrong.
“You’re out of gas,” the valet parker said.
“That’s impossible!” I said. “Could I be that stupid?” I’d been congratulating myself on how in tune I was with my automobile. I had totally mastered the settings on the heater, for instance: temperature dial on warm, fan on low, air on recirculate, vents aimed at feet and hands (except when all systems were trained full blast on the windshield for defrost). And I had developed a delicate touch for the windshield wipers, as well: intermittent for drizzle, low with a squirt of windshield-washer fluid for normal rainy highway spatter, high in heavy rain, and high with two or three squirts of windshield-washer fluid when a truck barrelled past. I still hadn’t gotten the side-view mirror on the passenger’s side fixed, but I’ve ordered the part. I was even thinking of extending my stay in Chicago to make an appearance at the Chicago Auto Show, which had just opened to the public that morning. I was really feeling quite knowledgeable about my dashboard.
“Do you think somebody was joyriding in it?” my friend asked, and even in my diminished and humiliated state (I had found the key to the hotel minibar, and a nightcap of cashews and Honkers Ale had given me a restless night), the idea of a dark-gray, sober-looking 1990 Honda Civic four-door sedan being chosen for a joyride by anyone—unless it was a couple of nuns—was hilarious to me. But the car has a new idiosyncrasy: the lever that pops open the door to the gas cap isn’t working; I have to pry open the door with my Swiss Army knife. I now demonstrated this skill for the doorman and the valet parker, suggesting how easily someone could have siphoned the gas out of my tank. “Gas IS expensive,” my friend said, loyally. “My garage has video cameras,” said the insulted valet parker. “I will get a wire,” said the doorman.
The gas gauge did indeed register empty, and the doorman’s wire hanger came up dry. The reservoir of my memory, however, began to refill. I had last looked at the gas gauge at a rest stop in Angola, Indiana, when it had been half full. I’d gotten excellent mileage in Pennsylvania, which is a lot wider than Indiana, so I assumed I would be O.K. And I had been O.K. How likely was it that I had had exactly enough gas to get from Cleveland to the front door of this hotel in Chicago? I could not help it: I was outraged.
Still, the only thing to do was to put gas in the car and see if it went. “Think of it this way,” the doorman said. “You couldn’t have run out of gas in a better place.” I didn’t have a container for gas, and neither did my friend. The driver of a minivan service to the airport had a two-gallon container, full of gas, which he sold me for five dollars. The Jamaican doorman flung back his cape and applied the gas container to the tank, but the nozzle wasn’t angled correctly and the gas spilled onto the street. I had an attachment for a gas can in my trunk, left over from my motorboating escapades of last summer, and that worked. “It was thirsty,” the doorman said.
O.K., so I was out of gas. It still didn’t prove that the gas hadn’t been siphoned. I drove off, with very ill grace, behind my friend, who led me to a gas station (the doorman had given her directions), where I filled the tank. Then we took an inadvertent tour of Chicago’s craterlike potholes and, at I-90, parted ways with a toot of our respective horns. We spoke by cell phone a little while later, when I told my friend that I had figured it out: the only way for me to prove that I wasn’t so stupid as to run out of gas was to see if I could get all the way to Cleveland without running out of gas again. “Good luck with that,” she said.
It was risky, not to say stupid, but it did add interest to the drive through Indiana and Ohio (yawn) to see how far the car would go once the gas gauge registered empty. (By the way, “The Confessions of St. Augustine” has a very good bit about stealing pears, but it lacks narrative momentum.) Slowly it dawned on me that I could actually be proving myself wrong. I made it all the way to the gas station in Cleveland where I had filled up the day before, popped the lever, unsheathed my Swiss Army knife, and pried open the door to the gas cap. Then I checked the odometer (355 miles) and watched the meter on the gas pump as I filled her up. She was empty, all right: the pump registered 11.9 gallons, to the ounce.
With abject apologies to the doorman on duty last Friday morning at the Ambassador East Hotel and the valet at G.O. Parking of Chicago, from the mucca pazza who ran out of gas.