Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cruise Control - Part 6: The Audacity of Automobiles

Click Here to read the previous entry in this series…

  So there I was, wallering around in the parking lot of a Jack-in-the-Box in who-knows-where Texas, trying to whack my still-burning cigarette out from under a stranger’s vehicle before an explosion made sure that no one got to eat a decent breakfast. Heart pounding, I finally snatched the thing up, scrambled to my feet, then I threw it back on the ground and stomped the hell out of it.

  Situation back under control. For now. Hopefully no one had taken pictures.

  Two seconds later, Darrin banged out of the restaurant and made the same navigational error, stumbling off the edge of the sidewalk, although he recovered much more successfully and didn’t hurl a flaming baton across the parking lot. It was now clear that some messed-up construction engineer had found it amusing to make this patch of sidewalk so treacherous. Perhaps some day I would hunt this person down and end his mean little life, but this was not that day.

  Darrin and I are the two quietest members of the family, fully believing that you really shouldn’t say anything unless it has merit in some way, unlike the rest of the family who can babble for 7 hours about smooth versus crunchy peanut butter. Put the two of us together and we say even less, just grunting occasionally as we smoke. This is how we bond, in blessed silence and welcome non-flapping of the mouth.

  But this time we had plenty to share. We had to quit with this leaving the highway every other exit business or we were never going to make it to Galveston on time. The boat would leave without us, a move that was probably a wise and just decision for Carnival to make, but a dismaying decision for our family. No more piddling around. If people threw up, then they threw up. Roll down a window and keep going.

  One by one, and with increasing evidence of agitation and dissatisfaction, the rest of the family members were disgorged from the restaurant doors, initially not bearing any actual food but eventually carrying grease-stained white paper sacks. Food was distributed and people clamored back into vehicles. There was general agreement that Metallica had reached the pinnacle of her worthiness in this life.

  As we were pulling out, a lengthy process where we count heads and get all the cars in line, I noticed another car pull up to the curb, commandeering one of the handicap spots right near the door even though there was nothing dangling from her rearview mirror that justified such an action. Out popped a woman sporting Jack-in-the-Box couture, and she sauntered inside, clearly arriving late for work but just as clearly not caring about tardiness or offensive selection of parking places.

  She was also slathered in copious amounts of metallic eye-shadow, this time a horrifying blue. Perhaps it was a club. Maybe there was just nothing else to do in this small town except drive tractors down Main Street or be a really bad drag queen. In any case, these people were just messed up, and it was time to get out of here.

  Get we did, rolling along the highway so a cruise ship wouldn’t pass us by, doing our best to make sure that we didn’t slow down for any lame reason. After about 10 exits of not-stopping, I relaxed a little bit, and even got out my laptop to begin the first drafts of capturing our journey. Too much had already happened, and I knew I would forget things if I didn’t start making an inventory. Besides, we just might need my documentation for legal reasons, if things kept going the way they were.

  Amazingly, we only stopped one other time, to top off the gas tanks. Even more amazing, nothing extraordinary or shocking took place during the process. The only thing I even remember from this stop is the image of several of us standing in a little half-circle in the parking lot, waiting for the others to pee, and staring at the giant red button they have at truck-stops, that emergency thing you can push if something goes awry at the gas pumps. We really, really wanted to push that button, just to see what would happen. But we didn’t. Obviously, we were tired, and not up to full performance mode.

  The next time I looked up from my laptop, we were entering Houston. For those of you who are familiar with East Coast big cities, the metroplexes of Texas are a little misleading. They don’t look like all that much when you only focus on one part of the city, but these are some big-ass towns. They go on forever. There’s just so much more room in a state larger than many countries. People spread out. And the women wear hairstyles bigger than Rhode Island.

  Even though Galveston is technically 45 minutes or so from Houston, it’s really one big city from Point A to Point B, with lots of little “cities” that have been swallowed up by progress and the American inability to not build a strip mall every time you stumble across an open patch of ground. Houston has oozed considerably from back in the day.

  So arriving in Houston basically meant that we had arrived in Galveston, with a bit of a delay before we could actually get out of the car. We watched with growing excitement as those strip malls whizzed past, along with strip joints, mega-churches, hot-spot dining places that would disappear in three months when something new opened somewhere else, and billboards for bail bondsmen, with teasing glimpses of open water on our left. Eventually we got to that long bridge that crosses the bay and drops your ass down on Galveston Island.

  An exit later, and we were moseying along Harborside Drive, headed toward the cruise docks. It wasn’t hard to figure out where we basically needed to go, what with the Carnival Conquest sitting at one of the docks and clearly visible from space. (That thing is huge.) It was a little bit more confusing trying to figure out what to do once we got there. We had multiple entrances, exits, parking lots, shuttle stops, confusing signs, and mysterious restricted areas to choose from, with hundreds of people milling about and also trying to figure out the game plan.

  Terry, our fearless caravan leader, studied the options, chose the access point that appeared to be appropriate, and we all pulled in. We were now in a long line of cars waiting to spew forth passengers and luggage, with colorfully-dressed men shoving around luggage carts and vying for our attention and tips. So far, so good.

  Now, at first we thought this might take a while, since there were so many people. But the thing is, people were in a hurry. Folks wanted to get on the boat and the luggage guys wanted to make some money, both groups desiring speed, so this really wasn’t the place to be if you wanted to leisurely do anything. If you visibly dawdled, there was outrage and honking.

  Very quickly, a curbside space opened up, and Terry deftly slipped into it. Darrin and Launa suddenly shot past us in their vehicles, snapping up two spaces ahead of us that had become available early, the tidy result of repeat visitors who knew what they were doing and were much more expedient at accomplishing things. (In reality, Darrin and Launa were probably already trying to distance themselves from me and Tiffany, because it was a given that one of us two would do something socially unacceptable on the ship. It was bound to happen.)

  Anyway, the four folks in our car piled out, and we were soon heaving luggage at the flower-shirted man whose eyes were happily calculating his tip. I paused for breath and surveyed the scene behind us, to find that there was now a massive number of cars piling up, with drivers that were already getting antsy. We had gotten here just in time, missing the human deluge that was percolating just steps away.

  I turned back around studied the nearly-empty car. This was the tricky part, where you had to scour for very important items that may have fallen out of handbags or were tossed in the car at the last minute and never officially given a home in the actual luggage. It’s a frantic moment, not wanting to leave anything behind, made even more nerve-wracking by the restless people behind us starting to pace back and forth in their cages.

  I didn’t spy anything that seemed worth the stretching it would take to reach it, so I slammed the back door and motioned to Terry that all was good. He and Darrin and Launa were going to drive the cars to the long-term parking and then shuttle their way back here. I stepped up on the curb and was immediately swallowed by a writhing mass of humanity.

  Between passengers and crew, there were going to be over 4,000 people on this ship. And as luck would have it , every single one of those people was apparently right here around me, with their sole purpose in life being that they do everything they can to get in my way and make my life miserable, cutting me off and tripping over my feet and not bothering to practice good hygiene.

  “Hey, Brian!”

  Why was someone yelling my name? Wait, was that Terry’s voice?


  I clawed my way back to the curb, to find the SUV still sitting there, with Terry standing outside the driver’s door. “The car won’t start.”

  He had to be kidding me, right? “What?”

  “The. Car. Won’t. START!”

  My head immediately swiveled to the herd of vehicles waiting behind us, vehicles that we were now completely blocking with a dead car that refused to move. Judging by the impatient and angry sea of faces, it was only a matter of seconds before the villagers reached for flaming torches and fashioned nooses out of seatbelts.

  This was not going to be pretty.

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