On Friday the 13th I was supposed to pick up my 13-year old son from the Sacramento airport. He'd been out in Nebraska and Kansas for a couple weeks, visiting his grandparents and extended family. It was a challenge for me because I don't drive.
“I have a suggestion for you,” my ex told me in a phone message. “You should go to Ukiah, get an ID card, and then take the Greyhound bus to Sacramento and pick up your son, yourself.”
That was her way of saying that she wasn't willing to drive to Sacramento with me.
Rather than go to the tedious bother of acquiring an ID card, I called around and found a relatively jobless friend who was willing to do the driving and present his ID as temporary custodian of the minor. In these economic times the combination of a car and a driver's license translates into gainful employment which I am happy to provide. “Who cares if I blow a hundred bucks on one trip?” I said. “I'm still saving money by not paying car insurance, and I'm also one less drunk on the road.” Weaving the corners of 253 between Boonville and Ukiah, over the extensive slug trails of perpetual roadwork, I cracked a can of beer and sighed, contentedly. “Basically right now I could be behind the wheel, but instead I've made the choice to be riding shotgun, and this beer is living proof. The world needs more people like me.”
“Shut up,” said the friend who'd agreed to drive.
“Pay attention to the road!” I don't like to be nag a driver, but we were coming up on the rear end of a truck loaded with smallish redwood logs that some people call “pecker poles.” One truck after another was plowing and snorting up the grade from Anderson Valley to Ukiah where it appears that the Mendocino Redwood company is stockpiling inventory in the hope of an economic turnaround. Armchair inspection has it that a big chunk of the recent surge in logging has to do with the farting deflation in speculative land values, investors liquidating in a desperate attempt to breathe a few more gasps before drowning. Maybe it's just business as usual. They say the mill in Philo will start accepting redwood again, soon.
As we chugged slowly up the grade, following the redwood truck, a black mercedes sedan passed both us and the rig around a right hand curve, over the double yellow. Grateful not to be the one behind the wheel, I had another sip of the steadily warming beer. It was like climate change in an aluminum can. “That was pure crazy,” I said.
“They must be in a real hurry,” said my friend.
When the truck pulled off to let us by, it wasn't but a couple more curves near the crest of the hill that we overtook the same black sedan whose driver had nearly committed suicide by smoking past us. It was now traveling no more than 20mph, swerving over the double yellow for no reason before each right hand curve, then overcompensating and bolting past the white on the right, into the gravel and rock.
“That guy's drunk or on meds or something,” I said.
“Or else he's just old. He looks bald,” my friend said.
“Old and drunk and on meds. It's barely even noon! Not even noon yet. We ought to make a citizen's arrest.”
“If only we had a cell phone.”
“Yeah, it would be handy. This guy — ” I cut off because the car ahead of us swerved completely across a double yellow, with another right turn approaching. There was nobody to pass. There was no explanation for this maneuver. It seemed that whatever afflicted the clearly befuddled driver was amplified by the threat of a right turn. The black sedan was completely contained in the wrong lane around the corner as a dumptruck loaded with gravel barreled up on it, and it was only for the defensive driving of my friend and the grace of God that the sedan managed to nonchalantly whip back into its correct lane a bare moment before it would have become a hood ornament on the dumptruck. Slowing, we gathered a train of cars and trucks behind as the black sedan in front weaved like it was following some imaginary slalom poles down a snowy slope.
“We gotta pull a citizen's arrest,” I kept saying. “This guy's seeing things we're not, apparently. He's gonna run off the road.”
“Yeah, you with a beer in your hand.”
“I'm not driving.”
The sedan slowed to 15mph, and we were all holding our breath with each curve down the steep grade. I squeezed the life out of my beer can. When the sedan nearly squashed itself like a potato bug on the grill of yet another dumptruck loaded with rock, I had to slide through the window and poke my upper body out like a turtle's head and front legs, wave my arms frantically, hollering at the driver ahead, pointing to the side of the road. Whether or not he got my message I'll never know, because he may have finally noticed that nearly a dozen cars and trucks were stagnating and honking behind him like we were loosely linked on an old steam-powered railroad train. He veered the sedan off into the gravel provided for runaway trucks, and I somewhat coerced my temporary employee to follow suit.
Waving at the stream of cars and trucks flowing past, I reached into the box for another can of beer before making my way to the driver's side of the black sedan and conferring with the man behind the wheel.
He was indeed bald and probably in his late 70s — not nearly as old as my dying grandfather, this guy on who-knows-what combination of meds, wearing dark sunglasses. “What's up, buddy?”
Perhaps due to the beer in my hand and the ones I'd already consumed, I wasn't able to determine at first whether the guy had been drinking. However, I hoped for his sake that he had. If he wasn't drunk then he really needed some constant supervision, and I had to wonder if the blonde hair streaming from the leathery, tanned face of the woman riding shotgun had been dyed. She also sported massive, dark sunglasses. Maybe they'd been arguing. I had a bunch of questions for the duo.
“Man, you can't sit there with a beer in your hand and wait for the CHP to show up,” my friend grieved at me, shouting from the driver's seat of his idling wagon. “What are you going to do?”
“I'm pretty sure I'm well within my legal rights.”
There I was like an actor who'd forgotten his cues. I didn't have a plan. “Buddy,” I said to the guy behind the wheel. “I don't know what you're on, but you're clearly in no condition to drive, kind of like me. The difference is that I'm not driving. Now the lady — how about her? Wanna let her drive?”
“Fuck you!” he said, and dropped the tranny into gear, slamming on the accelerator. He blazed around the next curves and lost us before we got to the pumpkin patches at the bottom of the hill, up Robinson Creek.
Ironically we ran into the same couple at lunch in the Ukiah Brewery, where the guy was extrapolating to the blonde chick about why he'd been too assertive for the art community in Mendocino. They were sitting at the bar, as were my friend and I. It was impossible not to eavesdrop. The guy must have recognized me from our little encounter on 253, but maybe with the dark sunglasses and his compounded state of probable inebriation, his being totally immersed in the topic of the coastal art politics, he just didn't notice I was the one who'd fumbled the citizen's arrest.
Even more ironically, when we'd run the gauntlet of Highway 20 and descended into the humid agricultural central valley, we stopped at a farm stand to select a plump watermelon reminding me of the open-pollenated Jubilee variety we used to pick when I was the age my teenaged son is now. Darned if we didn't run into the same couple again in the produce stand that was thriving so much that two teenaged girls were ringing up customers constantly. There were about a dozen customers in a half moon around the room, most of us straining to keep from dropping the 30-pound, green-striped watermelons. The bald artist must not have recognized me because here either because he gestured with a nod to the lunker I was clutching. “Bet you a dollar I picked the riper one,” he said.
“No way. I thumped a dozen — this one had the best ring.”
He shrugged. That was the last I saw of those two.
At the Sacramento airport you couldn't get into the lounge to sit and drink and socialize with folks from around the world unless you had proper ID, so we had to loiter in the shade of the parking garage for a solid hour before the flight was due to arrive. My friend sipped cautiously on a soda and tried to counsel me on behaving when we went inside, but I assured him the airport security was accustomed to interacting with spirited, sunburnt, red-eyed fellers in shit kicker boots. “This is the old west,” I said. “Gunslingers, etc.”
Sure enough, there at the escalator were two columns of crimson-cheeked Vietnam vets in wheelchairs or leaning on American flags, clearly on a mission to welcome some young soldiers back from tours of duty. This was my kind of crowd, and the atmosphere was fairly boisterous by the time my 13-year-old son appeared with his duffel bag, wearing the bright red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap his grandpa had given him. He stood alongside a fellow donning the gray, billowing army fatigues. There were cheers and hoots, handshaking and back slapping, a general celebration.
On the drive back through the ag lands, just about dark we pulled off along a canal and cut open the jubilee watermelon. It was dead ripe with the big black seeds, a little watery but sweet. Just as we were enjoying the first slices a helicopter roared directly overhead, descending to the adjacent almond orchard where it turned on the sprayers and offered a spectacular display, the mist radiant in the halogen glow.