Wednesdays are paper days, which means I saddle up the creaking machine and roar north to pick up the weekly edition of sermons and secret maps from the printer in Healdsburg. From those wheezing, coughing presses the latest communiqués will begin their patient journey to the far-flung reaches of the AVA empire, for the wandering knights and pious scoundrels to contemplate and devour like the magic bones of a sacred beast.
Now, even in westernmost California, it is winter, and with the sun sleeping in, I rise in a web of shadows, whip my inchoate senses into a semblance of order with a double cup of fine Gold Rush coffee, and fire up the internet to confirm that planet earth (as the quaint natives call it) hasn't been bartered overnight to a distant galaxy and/or the Clinton Foundation in exchange for three Guatemalan maids kitted out in UN caravan chic and waving Debbie Wasserman-Schultz's dental records (hint: she's a single bicuspid short of a species thought long extinct: Swampus Rattus Giganticus). The headlines are a comforting cliché of poly-gender dance troupe bake sales, vintage famine, and jousting lawyers spewing lies, damned lies and the logistics of despair.
In other words, all systems are go!
At 6:45 A.M. I motor from my San Anselmo bunker down Sir Francis Drake, then veer left onto the Miracle Mile and into San Rafael, stopping as usual at the Arco. After refueling, it's east on 2nd Street, past the bus and smart train depot, then beneath the monstrous chunk of 101 overpass, the rain making the concrete blasphemy even more gloomy and brutish than usual. I hang a hard left on Irwin, four lanes leading to the holy north and one's small duty in the greater war for freedom and meaning. Ahead the traffic light has the audacity to turn red. With the Rodney King footage still lurking somewhere in my reptilian brain, I ease to a stop, and watch the blurry neon glow of tail lights pulling into a Shell station. The light turns green. I hit the gas, but nothing. Less than nothing. The engine has died. I turn the key again, only to be met with horrible CLICK. Another frantic turn of the key, another ominous CLICK. Angry horns hurl insults from behind. Someone machine-gun flashes their brights in futile belief that their malevolence can persuade my AWOL ignition to rise again like Lazarus. Hey, I'm all for any miracles, especially ones that benefit me.
But my Bavarian Beast of a machine is as comatose as the patients in an Octoberfest drunk tent. In half a second we've gone from the Zen bliss of watching raindrops slide down the windshield to a triage situation.
I hit the dashboard's red EMERGENCY triangle, and my hazard lights flash on, only to be greeted by a toxic cloud of plaintive wails and beeps, as the endless river of outraged traffic is diverted by the impertinent rock of my bad luck. I keep turning the key, channeling my best Neville Chamberlain, hoping for a gentleman's handshake and a promise to be faithful in the future, but my usually reliable Machine-Beast ignores these desperate pleas for a rapprochement. It won't start, dead in the asphalt and water, and my morning plans likewise dragged into the abyss. A school bus lurches by, with a dozen tiny faces pressed to the glass. I want to shout, "You're next, you little bastards!" But who can begrudge their schadenfreude? I'd be laughing too, delirious with joy, if I were the one inching forward through the storm, instead of perched on this lonely outcrop of impolite failure.
After one more fruitless turn of the key, I fumble the AAA card from my wallet and dial the 800 number. A woman with a voice the sound of faraway ravens answers, "Are you in a safe place?"
Resisting the urge to say, "At this very moment or in general?", I say: "Not really."
"Then I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to call 911."
"But I'm a preferred member!"
She hangs up without so much as a good luck.
Expecting at any second to get cornholed by a jack-knifed big rig, I take a deep breath and dial 911. "Hello, 911, what's your emergency?"
"Yes, I'm broken down and —" The line goes dead. It starts to rain harder. I turn off the windshield wipers in the naive hope it will help the engine start. No luck. I call 911 again.
"911, do you have an emergency?"
"I'm broken down in the middle left lane on Irwin, in San Rafael."
"San Rafael, California?"
"Yes. Between 2nd and Third."
"Not on the freeway?"
"Are you in a safe location?"
"That probably depends on your idea of a safe location."
"Sir, this is no time for joking. Are you safe or not?"
"I'm inside my broken-down car in the rain, blocking one lane of traffic."
"That doesn't sound safe."
"Okay, I'm going to transfer you to the local 911 and San Rafael police. This line is for CHP issues only."
"I didn't know there was a difference."
"Big difference, sir... here you go..." I try to start the car again. Zilch.
"Hello, 911, what's the nature of your emergency?"
Oh, where to start?
"I'm broken down on Irwin, in San Rafael."
"Are you in a safe location?"
"Not really, no."
"Nearest cross street?"
"Between 2nd and 3rd, northbound."
"Closer to 2nd?"
"Actually, closer to the middle of the block, across from the Shell station."
"Are you off to one side at least?"
"No, I'm blocking the middle right lane."
"Right. Wow. That's definitely not good."
I don't know what to say. I'm beginning to feel like Michael Caine in ZULU.
"Sir, are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here."
"We'll send someone out right away."
"You too, and have a nice day," she said, without a hint of sarcasm or irony.
I try to fire up the fickle machine again. And again and again. The rain arrives in sideways gusts now, as bouncing headlights and angry horns attack from all sides in a Mongol horde of disdain. Five minutes pass. As I begin to acclimate to the hate and emptiness of it all, the tragedy of my certain demise is tempered by the fact that at least my rain-smeared corpse will make the evening news. With any luck, committees and fact-finding missions will be launched into the Byzantine failures of AAA, 911, and the PAC-12 television schedule. Letters will be written to local papers demanding a better emergency system. Box lunches will be eaten beneath fluorescent lights as angry fingers are pointed and policy recommendations are tabled for further review.
Of course, my heroic sacrifice, as needless as it was reluctantly dispensed, will be swallowed sooner than later into oblivion, like a cute puppy by the bureaucratic python of Time and... But wait! Suddenly, in this unlikeliest of spots, I'm electrified by a jolt of understanding: I finally understand what Bartleby the Scrivener is about! Of course any sane person would respond, "I’d rather not" to the insults and deceptions of prevailing culture. What's the sentient being supposed to say? And of course Camus' Stranger can't weep at his mother's funeral; it's the only sane response to the rodent stranglehold on our soft throats by the diseased claws of international banking, political action committees, the combustion engine...
As my old football coach Jim Miller used to say, "It's no sin to get knocked down, but it's a sin to stay down!" Why aren't they teaching Coach Miller in our ivy halls? Too much truth, that's why. I fondly remember another of dear old coach's favorite koans: "I thought I got lucky, but it turned out to be a wrinkle!" Have the so-called French philosophers every drooled something half as a profound! Smoke on that pungent cheese, Malraux and de Gaulle!
I'm excited now, glimpsing through the rain-streaked windshield a glimmer of truth: the total and beautiful pointlessness of it all. Why didn't I think of this earlier? By golly, it's given me a reason to live. Glancing at my phone, wondering with whom to share the epiphany, I see it's been 13 minutes since the second 911 call. I'm still blocking traffic, the raindrops still fall. But in the east the orange silhouette of a battered by unbowed sun stabs through hyena-like shadows. I turn the key: the Beast starts! Cue the chorus in Beethoven's Ninth! Sartre me up! Movement, progress, we live to fight another day!
I stomp on the gas for you, Bartleby, liberated at last, free as a springtime foal dancing in a meadow carved with daisies. The Beast gallops in triumphant ecstasy, like horsemen from the north, unsaddled, unburdened, unchained...
At least until the next traffic light.