Going Home, Days 6-7, 8/18-19/12: Deliverance

A former Econo Lodge, now closed, in Austintown, Ohio, where we spent a lovely final afternoon of our trip home.

Nov. 14, 2012

Here we go — the last installment of the epic Going Home saga, where Alexis and I and our yellow Penske beast left western Ohio Saturday morning with the goal of getting home to Connecticut by the end of the night. And as we found out, the road to good intentions is paved with hell.

For Going Home, the Prequel: Loose Ends, click here.

For Going Home, Day 1, 8/13/12: Leaving Fresno. Not., click here.

For Going Home, Day 2, 8/14/12: Sharing Needles, or Not Even out of California Yet, click here.

For Going Home, Day 3, 8/15/12: The Wrong Toins at Albuquoique, click here.

For Going Home, Day 4, 8/16/12: Amarillo by Lunchtime, But Let’s Wait ’til Oklahoma, click here.

For Going Home, Day 5, 8/15/12: The Big Push, click here.

For the entire Going Home series, click here.

The last day of the trip — or so we hoped and thought — began maybe a little more than an hour after the previous one ended, in that rest area on I-70 in western Ohio. The Saturday light was just starting to bleed into the darkness, black slowly dissolving into deep blue.

I descended the steps of the truck again to hit the women’s room, and I realized something: I needed a shave. I felt the stubble on my face, nearly a day’s growth — not nearly as much as in my boy days, but I could feel the slight coarseness of the stubble — and realized that I needed to do something about it, to be able to pass, especially in case of emergency. And I couldn’t shave in the women’s room, as anyone could walk in on me. Total pain in the ass. Electrolysis is near the top of my wish list once I get hired again and get working again. IF I ever work again at this point …

So, on to Plan B. Rough it. I opened the trunk of the Camry, took the razor and shaving cream from the well-worn Target bag I was using for my meds and toiletries, grabbed some napkins, climbed back in the cab, removed the makeup from my face, poured some bottled water into my hand and started splashing my face. I then lathered, shaved and cleaned up, alternating between handfuls of water and swipes of paper towel. A little messy, but it did the trick.

Then I reapplied my face — nothing too fancy, just enough where no one would read me — and then we were back on the road.

And one last time … showtime!

What’s round on the ends, hi in the middle?

Tranquil is the best way to describe the ride as dawn ascended over western Ohio. Lots of farmland and grass and trees. It had the feelings of a good day. Sparse traffic, enough light, clear skies and the adrenaline that comes from knowing we would soon be home. That, and Alexis turning the page of the atlas.

We plowed through five states the previous day; three to go. But even though I surveyed the map and absorbed all the ground we had to navigate in Ohio, I realized perhaps the worst part of the trip still lay ahead. Even worse than I-40 through the blast furnace of the Mojave. That would be I-80 through Pennsylvania.

I had driven that godawful stretch of highway twice before, both times en route to Cleveland: in 1990, when Paola, then my girlfriend, and I took a baseball road trip around Labor Day — an Indians game at the Mistake by the Lake (where we sat among 5,000 fans and 67,000 empty seats, but were 15 feet away from Roger Clemens warming up for his start with the Sawx, and I had never heard a baseball sizzle before or since), then on to Chicago for a Sunday-afternoon Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley (the year Cincy last won the Series) and White Sox-Royals Labor Day night at the old Comiskey. (That’s why we went — it was the final month of the Sox’ final season there, and I wanted to see one game there before they tore it down. And I learned that, were I to live in Chicago, I’d probably be a Sox fan — people go there to see a ballgame, not to be seen like the yuppies and water-cooler wannabes at Wrigley.)

The other trip was in July 1994, the first season the Tribe was playing at Jacobs Field, a road trip with some of my former Waterbury Republican-American sportswriter pals. We saw two Indians-Sawx games; the first game, a Friday evening, was the night of the O.J. chase, which I spotted on a TV that

The author, second from left (and wearing a Reducers T-shirt!), with my old Waterbury sportswriter pals at Jacobs Field, Indians-Red Sox, the night of the O.J. Bronco chase in 1994. We had pulled an all-nighter on the dark and tediously evil I-80 through Pennsylvania to get to Ohio that morning.

was turned on in one of the empty luxury boxes as we were leaving the ballpark. It took a minute to put one and one together and figure out what the white Bronco was doing. Anyway, we arrived that morning after an all-nighter through Pennsylvania on 80 — darkness, dullness and a truck stop somewhere in there.

The common denominator was I-80, one of the longest highways in the country. From I-95 in Ridgefield Park, N.J., less than two miles from the George Washington Bridge, to U.S. 101, a mile into San Francisco off the Bay Bridge. And in between? A whole lotta nothing. Tedium. The battle to keep awake.

Seriously — once you’re past the beginning, just past 95 in Jersey, you’re faced with hundreds of miles of nothing — well, okay, the Delaware Water Gap heading into Pennsylvania, but then nothing but godforsaken nothing but truck stops and an occasional motel until you stop for breakfast at the Bob Evans just past Youngstown, Ohio. Then there’s Cleveland, which is something, but then nothing but nothing the rest of Ohio, then cornstalks and cowshit and 25 miles between exits if you drive it through Indiana in the summer, then the exit for South Bend and Notre Dame, Inc., followed by the post-industrial apocalypse that is Gary and Hammond, then Chicago.

It says volumes that the highway on-ramp sign westbound in Youngstown says “80 WEST — New York,” and one of the overhead signs once you get to Chicago says “80 EAST — Iowa.” Just a lot of tedium and truck traffic and the temptation to let your eyes wander and lose focus on the road, which I certainly couldn’t afford to do.

That’s what I was facing. I knew Cleveland was about 12 hours from home, including stops, and we were approaching on a jagged diagonal across the entire state: I-270 clockwise around Columbus, I-71 north of Columbus, then east on 76. We would run into 80 just west of Youngstown and ride it to I-81 in the Poconos south of Wilkes-Barre, then 81 up to 84 in Scranton, then take that to Waterbury, where I’d climb East Mountain on Route 69 the four miles to the dead end on which my parents live in Prospect. And we’d have to make a stop or two or a few to rest and eat and fuel up and pee. I was hoping, in my most generous estimate, that we’d get home around 10 or 11 that night.

I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I was beginning to mentally prepare myself. The one and only thing Alexis was wrong about ahead of time was that I would lag and my desire to get home would fade a couple days into the trip. I was lagging physically, for sure, but getting more excited the closer we got to home. I couldn’t believe we were gonna do Oklahoma to Connecticut in less than two days — and driving a beast of a motor vehicle that I wasn’t pushing past 55, 60, even on the open roads.

Again, understand that the hands on my internal clock were melting like a Dali pocket watch by this point, and I’m guessing that it was sometime around 7:30 that we finally hit I-270, the Jack Nicklaus Freeway (who knew there were freeways east of California?) clockwise to 71. Again, your trusty navigator had to encounter tight turns and narrow lanes very gingerly — not as bad as Oklahoma City, but enough to keep me awake and challenged.

The challenge was to stay awake until we could find a decent place to stop. And we eventually did, around 8:30. I forget the name of the town or even the exit number. I think we stopped at a Denny’s. After a while on the road, everyplace is a fucking Denny’s. Even Ruth’s Chris Steak House is actually a Denny’s. (Not sure I’d take the Grand Slam Porterhouse …) The important thing is that we stopped and sat and ate and checked our electronic communication ball-and-chains (her phone, my laptop) and rested and fueled up.

I’ve got worries, oh-ohhhhh …

The mind wanders at this point. I tried to keep from getting ahead of myself, to keep from fretting too much. But I had made a huge decision, one of those life-changing choices, in going home. And as positive and excited as I was about it — believing that this was playing out the way it was supposed to — this Gemini was thinking of the dark side, too.

I was certainly looking forward to seeing my family. At the worst — after the unemployment ran out nearly a year and a half ago — I never thought I would get home again, never get to see my parents (ages 82 and 76) alive again. There were days I dreaded that call, being that far away from everyone. How the hell would I get home?

I was waiting to get home to my friends. I was looking forward to having quality time with people, unconstrained by the three or four weeks of time I

Tell me again that I’m doing the right thing going home. Tearing through Ohio, Saturday morning. So close, so far.

had on visits home, a tough thing to arrange in the midst of the holidays. I was looking forward to hearing from all the people who said, “Come home, Frannie! We miss you!” I was looking forward to really meeting people who had virtually met me online over the last year and a half. I was looking forward to re-plugging into life in Connecticut — eight years and one gender later, the worst of my troubles seemingly past me, looking forward to seeing lots of friends and getting that goddamn job at long last and feeling like a human being again.

But as a Gemini, it’s my birthright — my sworn duty, really — to have two sides to everything. And because my life has been so screwy for so long, because the universe has seemed to be playing with me for so long, because I didn’t have the happy ending yet to the book I so want to write, and because it was such a huge, life-changing decision, I thought about the worst as well.

What if I get home and no one wants to know me or see me? That all this “Come home, Frannie” stuff was just talk? What if I’m as alone as I’ve ever been, as distant as if I remained in California? What if things get tense and fall apart with my parents, who’ve lived by themselves for so long now and have all their things and all their routines just the way they want them?

And, worst of all, what if I can’t get a job? What if I send a kazillion applications and have just as little response as I did in Fresno? I mean, part of why I’m going home is because I feel I have a better chance of a job back East if I have CT on my resume instead of CA. And if it doesn’t pan out, I’m thoroughly fucked — I just can’t turn around and move all the way back across the country again. That would be the absolute rock bottom. That would be the tipping point. That’s when I really would take the car out to the ocean and take a nice long walk.

So once again, as we headed into the afternoon, I said to Alexis, “Tell me I’m doing the right thing. Tell me I’m doing the right thing going home.” She’d already heard this before and already given me her answer. She just went back to texting.

And sometime after 1, we finally reached the last huge obstacle between us and home: the evil I-80 itself. A huge psychological lift. It meant we were maybe eight hours from home. We’d be back in Connecticut around 10, 11.

I was smiling quietly at that point. But I was slightly concerned. As we were heading down a long downhill, I saw the temp gauge rise a little above normal — not enough to be alarmed, but I did find it a little strange, as I had my foot off the gas at that point and wasn’t straining the engine any.

Youngstown would be a logical place to stop and have lunch and get a little rest before our assault on I-80 in the Alleghenies. We got off west of Youngstown, at Route 46 in Austintown, at the exit for the Bob Evans where I stopped on the way to Cleveland that long ago,  but we stayed on our side of the overpass, where there was a TravelCenters truck stop. It was 2 on the dot.

Taking a REAL long leak

So that’s why my temp gauge was a little high …

I pulled into a fuel bay. She went inside. I went to fill the tank.

And beneath the engine I saw a huge pool of water. And coolant.

Aw, fuck, I said quietly, much more with a sigh of resignation than with anger. Are you kidding me?

We’re this close to home and now the truck’s gonna act up? I had loaded up on so much trouble on the front end of the trip — the delay in picking up the truck on moving day because the guy who inspected it punctured the radiator; getting an old truck with 163,000 miles on it to go cross-country; the problems with the dolly at the first truck stop outside Tulare; the ride through the 116-degree heat of the Mojave — that I was hoping all the bad stuff was out of the way.

And now this. I had fretted some about Penske giving me an old truck, and I was being proven right.

I unclamped and lifted the hood — as if that would do me any good, since I had never seen a diesel engine before. The interior of the compartment was all shades of wet, and I could see where the greasy coolant had started to condense and leak, reddish-brown, out of beneath the hood on the sides.

I was looking for a reservoir where coolant would go, but what good would that do me? Again, I had never seen the engine compartment of a diesel before. And what would I put in the truck in the first place? I was also buying a little time to let this process in my brain so I wouldn’t do anything dumb. It did seem though, that the hoses appeared intact.

I called Alexis to let her know something was wrong, then I pulled out all the papers from Penske to find its emergency number. I was very calm about it when I reached the call center. The guy at the call center called the nearest garage they had contracted with for repairs. He said they would have someone over in about 20 minutes. And he told me, when I asked, that this wasn’t going to cost me anything. I knew it deep down — they damn well better not! — but I think I needed to hear that at that point.

She came out to look. “What are you gonna do?” she said, with a shrug and an even tone. At that point, I didn’t know how to read her — whether she was matter-of-fact about in that “shit happens” way, or on pins and needles because of the time element. Probably both. She was really banking on getting home this night — she had told me several times later in the trip how much she was really missing Matt, and she also wanted to be in great shape for her friend’s 90th birthday party the next day.

And here we were, seven or eight hours from home, and the truck crapped out. Would someone be able to fix it? Were we stuck for the night in Nowheresville? Would she even make the party at this point? She was silently freaking out, and I was, too — I mean, she did me the solid of solids by offering to fly out and drive home with me, now there was a chance she was gonna miss out on something very important to her because of me.

I went inside to sit with her at a well-worn high-backed booth near the kitchen. This was one of those places where the decor really hadn’t changed much since the late ’60s, early ’70s. I plugged in my phone over near one of the setting stations and was gonna order some soup, but then I changed my mind — I was antsy about missing the guy from the garage — and went outside to wait for him.

It was about 20 minutes later, sure enough, that a small black pickup pulled up behind my beast. A guy named Chris got out of the truck. He was shorter than us, mid-20s, head shaved, wearing a cap. He seemed very nice and very conscientious. His voice was slightly off, a bit slurred, and the thought occurred to me after a few seconds that this was the speech pattern of someone who was born deaf or severely hearing-impaired. Sure enough, I saw the hearing aids on both ears. While I didn’t speak louder, I made sure to talk facing him to make it a little easier.

He climbed up on the truck and peeked in, then climbed down, took the mechanic’s dolly out of the bed and took a crawl beneath. A couple minutes later, he came out and gave his verdict.

“Your water pump broke,” he said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Can it be fixed today?”

“I’m gonna give a call back to the garage and see what they can do.” He pulled out his cell as I tried to keep my anxiety and frustration to a bare minimum. A couple minutes later, he told me, “They’ll have someone here in an hour. The best thing for you to do is to move the truck out of here to the lot across the street, and he’ll meet you there.”

So he went back to the garage. We hopped back into the rental from Purgatory and took it across 76 Drive, the service road that paralleled the interstate, to the huge gravel lot that provided the parking to Club 76. The best we could figure out from the signs, the place was part massage parlor, part adult video store, part “gentlemen’s club.” Your one-stop shopping place for skeevy, horny truckers. We didn’t want to think about it. And Alexis didn’t want to stay there; there was a Starbucks at the corner of 46 at the top of the street, so she took the five-minute walk. I stayed with the truck. I couldn’t stay awake, yet I couldn’t sleep, as the truck was its uncomfortable self and I wanted to be awake when the guy came. Whenever he came.

I called Mom to let her know we weren’t getting in tonight. I had called her at breakfast to tell her I was hoping to be home between 9 and 11. She just said to take my time getting home and be careful — if this were The $25,000 Pyramid, it would be under “Things You Expect Your Mother to Say.”

An hour, under these circumstances, can seem like two or three. But it was just a little over an hour — I think quarter to 4, but then again, I was losing my sense of time — when a graying, bearded, middle-aged guy in baseball cap showed up in a pickup. I called Alexis to get her back to the truck.

He checked under the hood, then told me, “We’ll get you back on the road by tonight. The garage is just a few minutes from here. Just follow me.”

“You mean I’m not gonna overheat?”

“No. You’ll be fine for a short trip.”

Then he told me, “You know, you’re pretty lucky. We were able to call the International dealer right before he closed to get the part. In fact, he left it in front of the door for us to pick up. We had to race over there and pick it up so no one would steal it.”

Rough town, it seems.

“Yeah, we do a lot of work for Penske,” he added. “When they have something that needs to be done, we jump.”

Alexis came back — she told me the Starbucks was kinda useless, with no wifi at all, but at least it kept our fair-skinned redhead out of the heat and shade — and we were on our way. Out of the lot, back on 80 eastbound, and a few

The garage that replaced our water pump.

minutes later we were off and south on U.S. 422, Warren-Youngstown Road heading into a weird rural, industrial area. And on the right was a huge building with a lot of trucks. A&M Towing and Road Service.

The map said we were in the town of Girard.

“Deliverance, Ohio,” she said.

And you just know that very word sets off banjos in my head. And it did occur me that as two girls — with purty mouths, not to mention one with a little something extra — in a strange place eight hours from home, we were, not to put a fine point on it, vulnerable. But I quickly nipped my exhaustion-fueled paranoia in the bud — after all, were something to happen to us, there’s a record of us calling the Penske number and the garage where we were brought. Too easy to trace.

One of the guys in the shop guided me into the lot. I told him I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get back out because of the car in tow, and I was concerned, days later, about how secure the car really was. He said they’d take care of it. There was a truck they were working on ahead of ours, and as soon as they were done, they’d get to us.

I asked where the bathroom was. One of the guys brought me into the office. There was a girl there working dispatch. He said, “Could you show her where the ladies’ room is?”

That was a relief. I passed well enough where he thought I was genetic and he didn’t want me using the boys’ room.

When I left, I went out to the garage. In the near end of the room, by the vending machines, was a picnic table that they used for lunch. That’s where we would wait. We were secure in knowing that we would eventually be back on the road when we were meant to be. And there was a work-strength extension cord that ran to the table. We took turns charging our electronic ball-and-chains. Occasionally, I would get up and walk around. I’d wander over in the direction of the repair bay, but I wasn’t a pain in the ass about it. I knew they were working, and they had things to do, and they weren’t gonna blow off a Penske job. Besides, they seemed like good guys.

And, having had my share of cars at my share of mechanics shops over 30 years — most recently five days earlier, Dave Kurata and crew in Fresno replacing my Camry’s alternator on the shortest of notice — I knew the best thing to do was be patient and let them do their jobs. And sugar and decency goes a lot farther with mechanics than impatience and crankiness. What Dave and his guys did for me was a lot of karma points racked up in my column. And even though I’d never see these guys again, they get the same respect. They were gonna ensure that we made it home in time.

The only thing I couldn’t do was rest. If you think trying to sleep on an uncomfortable truck bench seat is impossible, try at a picnic table. And with a certain amount of whatever adrenaline reserves I had left running at a low hum — I was excited that we were gonna be home soon — I couldn’t totally shut down. I could rest my eyes and be free of concentrating on the road for a few hours, but I couldn’t totally shut down.

It wasn’t until about 6 that they finally got to our truck. I was still concerned about them being able to back the damn thing out, especially with the winch brackets a little bent, but they didn’t seem to be concerned. And the closer they got to fitting in the new pump, the more adrenaline was pumping and the less I could rest.

Around 7:30, they were finished. I walked out and watched as they gingerly worked the truck, with the car on back, out of the bay. I didn’t get too close, as I didn’t want to be a mother hen about this, but yeah, I was nervous. The driver took the truck around the corner. I’m guessing he and one of the guys were taking the dolly off the hitch and turning around in the back and reattaching the car. Either that or they had a huge turnaround area. We stood there out in the lot with three of the other guys. We got to small-talking.

“So where are you going?” One of the guys asked me.

“We’re headed back to Connecticut,” I responded. “I’m moving home from the middle of California. She flew out to take the trip back with me. We left Fresno Tuesday morning. We’re about eight hours from home and this happened.”

“So what made you move home?”

“Well, it’s what happens when your business self-destructs and you lose your job. You pack up your life and drive across the country back home. I figure I have a lot better chance of getting a job if I move home.”

“So what sort of work were you doing?”

“Newspapers.”

“What did you do?”

“I was an editor and a writer.”

He seemed impressed enough.

“That’s tough losing your job.” I’m sure he knows plenty of people near and in Youngstown who’ve lost theirs in the last 20 years.

“Yeah,” I shrugged, “but what the hell are you gonna do?”

The truck was good to go. I went around to the back and checked the car’s wheels on the dolly and made sure the trailer lights were connected. He wished us well; I thanked them for taking care of us and we were headed back to I-80.

“I’m gonna push it best I can,” I told Alexis. “If I need to stop and sleep, I’ll stop and sleep. I don’t want to get us into an accident, especially this close to home. But we should be home in plenty of time.”

“Okay,” she said.

It was around 8 when we finally left the garage. About five minutes later, we were in Pennsylvania. The darkness started to settle in a few miles after that, by the time we reached the I-79 intersection. Around quarter to 9, with the fuel gauge light on and both of us needing food, we stopped at another TravelCenters stop on Route 8. There was a Subway at the gas station next door, so we took a walk over. Turkey and Swiss sub, lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickles, black olives. Unfortunately, a guy came in before me who was ordering for a family of four, and there was just one kid behind the counter. Oh, well — not in that big a rush at this point, right? Back to the truck stop, another tub of unsweetened iced tea and a couple more packs of Mentos. We ate in the truck and I got us out of there, into the heart of the darkness that is the Alleghenies.

Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!

Shortly after we hit the road again, the hell of I-80 began. Namely, twists and turns and uphill climbs — and occasional steep downhills — that were keeping my mind sharply focused, even if my body said otherwise. The rest of the drive would be mind over matter.

And if that wasn’t enough, Pennsylvania was tearing up several of its I-80 bridges; at least a half-dozen of them were being rebuilt, whittled to one very narrow lane. I really lost count; it just seemed that every 20 to 30 minutes driving through the western half of the state, I was encountering another bridge under reconstruction and saying “Oh, shit.”

As if keeping this truck under control on Pennsylvania’s notoriously shitty highways wasn’t gonna be hard enough, I had to white-knuckle my way very carefully, with very little to no leeway. And one bridge in particular had me especially tense; even in the darkness, I could see that it was a deep gap beneath us, and on either side of the Jersey barriers along the very narrow roadway (couldn’t have been more than 12 feet), nothing but a huge plunge. And me in the cab looking over all this. Kinda like walking a tightrope. I took a breath until the 10 seconds that seemed like 20 minutes passed and we were on firm pavement again.

But even that wasn’t enough to keep me awake. Sometime after midnight — or was it 1? — I saw a state rest area and pulled off. It was full of trucks. Every space occupied. We had to exit the rest area and were lucky enough to grab a spot on the shoulder of the on-ramp. Not much more of this to go. I don’t have a clue how long we were there, but I’d say it was around 2 that I said, “Let’s go.”

Or, should I say, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!”

The one thing Alexis did the whole trip, as she played keeper of the CDs, was steer clear of the really loud fast stuff. My Northern soul and ’60s mixdiscs? Cool. The mixdisc I made for my friend Tom’s memorial, which she pulled out as we were traveling from New Mexico into Texas? Priceless. But not the loudhardfast stuff.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. And if I had the song on CD — instead, it’s on vinyl and boxed-up in the back of the truck — I’d have played Motorhead’s “Deaf Forever” on a loop for the next six hours. It’s loud, it’s steady, it’s brutally relentless in an on-through-the-night way and better than caffeine — I’d probably have been rasping along with Lemmy at the top of my lungs.

But since I didn’t have Motorhead, on to plan B, of which I had plenty — Ramones. I had made copies off my originals of the first five albums, just waiting for the day when I would be driving home across the country and would need that last loud blast to get me the rest of the way.

I asked her to pull out the first album — the first musical request I made the entire trip. On it went. And on we went. I was worried about what the sleep deprivation would do to me; after all, I had neglected to get my sleep for years in my 20s and 30s — I jokingly called my longtime overnight radio show on WPKN “The Sleep Deprivation Experiment” — and I ended up with an especially brutal case of sleep apnea that nearly killed me five years ago. Would this all catch up to me at some point? I mean, it had been a long time since I’d been hanging by my short fingernails like this, and that’s never comfortable. Or healthy.

And somewhere around 3 a.m., it was time to stop and fuel up and get a little more rest. I jokingly called it East Bumfuck Township, but I looked it up later and found we were in Milton, certainly a Paradise Never — a Flying J, I

Truck stop, East Bumfuck Township, Pa., 3 a.m. Sunday. I feel even worse than I look.

believe, off Route 254, with one withered hot dog rolling around on the roller grill and dingy yellow lighting. I hit the girls’ room to trade in my last iced tea — needless to say, I looked like shit. And didn’t care. All I cared about was home.

About a half-hour later, a little more than 12 hours after we merged in, we were finally able to extricate ourselves from the hell of Interstate 80, with a left exit onto 81 north.

And about 10 minutes after that, around 3:30, I saw an exit sign for Route 29; that sounds familiar. And right after that, the exit for Route 309.

“Holy shit,” the driver said. (I say that a lot.) “We’re in Wilkes-Barre already!”

All those years of traveling from the north and getting off in Wilkes-Barre and I never knew 80 was that close. Actually, 81 skirts to the east of Wilkes-Barre, which happens to be the hometown of my father and his side of the family. Albie was one of eight kids (two of whom died in their teens) mainly raised during the Depression in a very blue-collar, hard-living, shot-and-beer-and-beer-and-beer city, a onetime bigtime coal-mining place. Two of my aunts still live in the family house, and my lone remaining uncle lives across the street.

No social call this trip. Not at 3:30 a.m. And not with a truck that wouldn’t have made it down the narrow hill and cut the turn onto the girls’ narrow one-way street. What that meant to us is this: Wilkes-Barre, in a car traveling at normal speed, is three hours from Prospect. So with the slower truck, we were just over three hours away. Another huge shot of adrenaline.

Which I needed because I had another white-knuckle stretch ahead, heading into Scranton — yes, that Scranton, Office-watchers — a half-hour north. You see, 81 from Moosic to Scranton has been in a state of permanent road construction since the mid-’80s. The same stretch of highway was all ripped up the last time I was through there, about 10 years ago. And it was still a couple miles of one-lane traffic on another narrow and ragged stretch of road. God, a person could move away, transition genders and get laid off twice in that time span. It felt like 10 minutes of torture. But we were out of there by 4 and at the western end of 84.

Sadly, the adrenaline rush from Wilkes-Barre was wearing off pretty quickly. I started looking for truck stops, and if I recalled right, there was a rest area midway through the Poconos. I lasted about a half-hour on 84 — halfway from Scranton to the New York line — when I saw the sign for the rest area just before Route 390.

“I’ve gotta stop here. I’m totally shot,” I told my patient co-pilot.

This time, I stopped on the on-ramp shoulder. My knees were creaky, my tailbone beyond shot from the uncomfortable bench seat, even with the blanket I bought in Arizona. And I needed that blanket to keep me warm; clearly, we were no longer in the Southwest. It was chilly and damp in the Poconos, typical for this time of year, two weeks from Labor Day.

Beautiful Sunday

As the sun was rising, around 7, Alexis was bit more awake than I was and a bit more anxious.

“We really should get going,” she said. Six hours to her friend’s party. And we were still about 2 1/2 hours away from home. She wasn’t upset; she knew I was doing my damndest. I cleared my fog and turned the engine over; my next sleep would be in a real bed at home.

And out we drove onto 84 again. It was a beautiful sight from afar, watching the low cloud cover settling over the valleys and gullies below as the sun broke. And around 7:30, Pennsylvania left me one final obstacle in its godawful highway system: the bridge from Matamoros across the Delaware to Port Jervis, on the New York side — and close enough to Jersey to spit on it, were I a passenger — was also one very narrow lane. And this time, I could see down to the bottom. Not pretty. One more go with the white knuckles.

Maybe one day Pennsylvania will fix its damn roads and they’ll stay fixed. But that was a gigantic sigh of relief. Ten states down, two to go. And just 71 miles to the Connecticut line, just over 100 miles from home.

One stop remaining; I needed a personal pit stop. Time to top off the tank and give back my last iced tea at the Pilot truck stop off Route 17K in Montgomery, just on the opposite side of 84 from Stewart International Airport. I was worried about whether the stubble was starting to show through on my face,

Across the Hudson on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

especially in sunlight, after a day’s growth. No one was looking at me funny; then again, if they were like me, they were too busy trying to wake up. The cashier was kinda surly; that’s how I finally knew I was back in the Northeast.

Back on the road and, a few minutes later, across the mighty and picturesque Hudson on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, with a $10 toll to pay on the back end. My final trip expense. But more importantly, we were more than halfway through New York state, a little more than a half-hour from Danbury and just over an hour away from home.

We were both really starting to feel it now. The mood was brightening immensely. I just had to keep it together for about another hour.

Connecticut Welcomes You

We passed the junction of 684; one more exit to Connecticut. We both had our cameras ready two minutes later as we crossed into Danbury. I had Alexis check her phone. It was 8:43. And she did the ceremonial final turn of the

Entering Connecticut, 8:43 a.m.

page in the atlas. I might not have forgotten all the things I didn’t miss about Connecticut over the previous eight years, nut man, it was great to be back.

I think the universe held us up the few extra hours because we were meant to arrive in daylight and because it would be a lot safer to drive the often-crowded highway through Danbury, with its lane changes and crossing traffic, on Sunday morning. It was a wonderful show of hazy sunshine that we were treated to this morning. In fact, save for a few scant drops in New Mexico and Texas, we didn’t hit any rain at all the whole trip.

Anyway, Alexis called Matt to meet her at my folks’ house, but it was no time for me to take my eyes off the road or the traffic. I mean, how would it look if I got all the way across the country and then crashed within a half-hour of home? Besides, 84 eastbound between exits 15 and 16, a long, narrow,

The South Street overpass, Middlebury. Almost home.

two-lane uphill from Southbury leading into Middlebury, is a disproportionately dangerous stretch of highway — more so in the fog or snow, of course, but still, no lagging allowed.

And there, heading into Exit 17 in Middlebury, a welcome sight — the arch. The South Street overpass, which sits at the top of an uphill grade, won some sort of highway design award when it was built 50 years ago, probably for its futuristic (for the time) simplicity, and not only is it stylish, it’s kind of a gateway into the Naugatuck Valley. And on trips ever since childhood, it’s always been the sign that we were almost home.

About three minutes later, we were atop the double-deck overpass in Waterbury, spanning from Highland Avenue in Town Plot through downtown.

The exit home. Exit 23 off I-84, Waterbury.

That would be the Prospect town line. Route 69 south.

On the port side, the unwelcome sight of the unofficial city landmark: the Siena-inspired tower of the old railroad station which, since 1958, has been the home of the evil newspaper where I started my career (and from which I was union-busted 20 years ago at that very point in time), the Republican-American. I didn’t dwell on it, as I was making sure I could cross lanes and get in the right for my exit, Exit 23, the Route 69. We were finally done with the interstate portion of our program. And I was pumped. Four more miles to go.

I made the right off the long feeder exit onto 69 south. Heading up the long East Mountain incline into Prospect, I was struck by how lush and how green everything was. That was a welcome change — along with the blue skies — from the scrawny trees and brownish-yellow skies of the San Joaquin Valley.

At the top of the East Mountain hill, out of the valley, was the bend leading into Prospect. It seemed as sleepy as I would expect on a Sunday morning. One thing had changed: For the two miles leading into my street (and, as I saw later, the mile or so after), there was an American flag hanging off every telephone pole. I know Prospect has veered right over the years — after all, it’s had the same Republican mayor, “Mayor Bob” Chatfield, since I was a junior in high school, which would be close to 35

Waiting to make the turn onto my street.

years now — but this ostentatious flag-waving seemed like an unnecessary, far-right sorta thang. That was weird to see.

Another reason the universe deemed it necessary to come home on Sunday is because the traffic in town has grown like a rabbit colony. When we moved here in October 1965, there were about 2,500 people and one red light. There are now over 9,000 people and four red lights, and Route 69, mostly a two-lane road running north-south, is the only direct route between Waterbury and New Haven, And at the wrong time of day — which seems to be most times weekday afternoons — it can take two or three minutes to turn on or off of my dead-end street.

And as I reached the intersection of my street, I encountered oncoming traffic. Welcome to Prospect. But one driver was kind enough to stop and let me make the left turn.

My street is a quarter-mile dead end. It was a lot longer stretch when I was a kid, walking up to the top of the street from near the bottom to catch the bus. (The town built a cul-de-sac in the late ’70s, so kids don’t have to do that anymore, as the buses come down the street.) But now — having taken so many bike rides through Fresno, with half-mile intervals between traffic lights, and now wrapping up my cross-country drive, my street seems incredibly small. Either it’s shrunk or I’ve grown.

I had stressed at one point or another about the logistics of parking the truck. I’d just pull it up to the front of the house, on the left side of the street, facing the wrong way, then try to get the car off the dolly, park it in the usual third-car spot in the driveway. I’d unhitch the dolly and leave it on the street as I went to unload the truck, then hitch it one last time to bring it to the rental center.

But it was effortless. And there on the left was the little house that I called home as a child and, at least for now, would do again as a middle-aged adult.

It was 9:30 on the dot. I shut off the truck. Google Maps had said it was 3,009 miles from the Fresno Bee parking lot.

One day of loading and running around, five days of driving — done.

I was home.

No outbursts — no whoops of joy, no tears of relief. I was too exhausted to do anything but smile.

And I still had a day ahead of me.

And within two minutes, a 2010 Mustang GT pulled up as well. Her knight in shining armor, riding a red horse, dismounted and came to greet us. And she

Hey! I'm here!

Hey! I’m here!

gave Matt a long and classic I-love-you-I-missed-you-so-much hug and kiss. Her welcome home.

Another thing for which to be happy — I got her back with 3 1/2 hours to spare.

I started taking photos and Matt got a shot of us. Alexis told me later on that she wished I had taken a pic of her hugging her Mustang.

It was all worth it

My parents, devout Catholics as they are, go to Sunday morning Mass and then out with their friends for breakfast. I had a feeling they wouldn’t be home by the time I got there; Mom told me the day before that they’d leave the house keys in the mailbox.

The driveway was missing one car. I grabbed the keys from the box at the road

Looks like we made it.

Looks like we made it.

and walked the front lawn to the door as I had so many times before. As if I belonged there.

I opened the storm door and slipped the key in the front door and turned the handle upward.

Open sesame.

Welcome home.

The living room, like my street, seemed smaller than even the last time I was home, less than two years before. Granted, the two houses in which I lived in Fresno had more wide-open architecture, but that was beside the point. It was

The truck has landed.

The truck has landed.

very cozy and the couch was comfortable. And I plopped. The most comfortable seat I’d had in a week.

And then, as Alexis and Matt were getting ready to leave, the Buick turned into the driveway. I was excited. That moment when it all comes together.

My parents walked in. They said hello and we hugged. I introduced them to Alexis and Matt; it’s always good when my worlds come together. They had to go, leaving me to begin the next chapter of my life.

I’ve told friends that the trip — all the hassles and snafus and tedium and struggles to stay awake — was all worth it the moment I pulled up in front of the house. That’s part of it. But seeing my parents in the flesh again, and hugging them, sealed it. It was real.

One more thing to do

Of course, I couldn’t rest for long. As much as I wanted to plop on the bed, I couldn’t do that. If I had, I wouldn’t get up until Monday.

“What time are you supposed to meet everybody?” Mom asked.

It was a little after 10, and I was to meet everyone at the storage space at 1.

A dozen states' worth of dirt.

A dozen states’ worth of dirt.

Storage was the last piece to fall together. I didn’t know where to take my truck full of crap.

In Fresno, I could just throw a dart at a map and find one of a zillion Derrel’s Mini-Storage places, as I did with half my stuff for a year. Here in Connecticut, the storage spaces are more scattered — and more expensive. Plus, I wanted something between Prospect and New Haven, as my job search would be for someplace between New Haven and New York. I ended up finding a climate-controlled unit in Hamden. $200 a month. Yikes. But it’s something; I guess things will sort themselves out somehow.

I made the reservation from the road on Thursday; talk about putting things off ’til the last minute. I was then able to round up a few friends to help me with the load-out. I told everyone to meet at 1.

They’d all be there, even if I wouldn’t be all there physically or mentally.

Since my parents had switched to wifi since I was last home, and they weren’t sire of the code, my laptop was useless, so Mom gave me her password and let me get on her desktop in the cellar to read my emails and contact everyone.

I then went outside with my father to try to take the car off the dolly at long last. It was seriously in need of a bath — it collected dust and soil samples from a dozen states over the last week — but surprisingly, the winches let go pretty easily. The left front webbing was slightly tangled, but not too badly. It took maybe an extra 15, 20 seconds to work it loose.

My father had a hard time coming to grips with me when I came out; it took 14 months until he finally came around with me. Now he’s fine with his firstborn daughter. And I think that him seeing that I can still hold my own — that I can still do all the things I did in my boy life, onset of middle age aside — puts him more at ease. It felt like a bonding moment. And I was so happy to be able to take the car off the hitch at long last and put it in the driveway. The door sticks so slightly after my little problem in Tulare, but I’ll manage.

As I parked the car, I got a wave. My next-door neighbor, Cindy. I came over for a couple minutes. Her husband, Tom, and his brother, Bob, grew up in the house next door, and Tom bought it after his parents died a few years ago. The last time I saw them, on a visit home three years before, was in boy drag. But my mom had told them since, so it was no big trick-or-treat moment when she saw me. But it was reassuring and a nice way to step back into life at home.

I went back in and shaved and redid my face with the barest of foundation and eyeliner, as I was just gonna sweat it off, anyway. I also changed out of the top I’d been wearing the last two days and into my Saints jersey — sturdy, air-conditioned and would wick off the sweat. And about 12:30, I began making my way down to Hamden.

I pulled in the lot a few minutes after 1 — exhausted, yet feeling mellow. Feeling good. I was realizing I would have to get used to Connecticut traffic again after my time in California, but if I could get through one more day with an oversized truck, then I’d be fine.

The first three people to greet me were my old pal Harry, the former station manager at WPKN, and Kathy and Derek, who came down from Prospect. It

The first time Kathy and I had seen each other since middle school. At the load-out in Hamden.

The first time Kathy and I had seen each other since middle school. At the load-out in Hamden.

was the first time Kathy and I had seen each other since eighth-grade graduation. She and I had found each other in March on a Facebook page called “You Know You Are From Prospect When …” She’s one of four women who were in my class at one point or another and with whom I’ve now reconnected as grown-ups. Derek, her husband, remembered me from the ’80s, as he then worked at a garage where I took my cars from time to time. And they came down to see me and help me. Yes, technology is a wonderful thing sometimes, much as I bitch about it.

Then the rest showed up. Drew and our pal Jack. Lexy and her girlfriend, Dana. And, a few minutes later, Paola. Biiiiiiiiig hug for her.

I went in and squared away business with the manager and lined up my space. I would have to drive around the back corner of the building and back up into

It is he, Drew.

It is he, Drew.

the bay. A little cockeyed, but the truck ramp came out nicely, and we got to work.

I don’t know what I would have done without my friends on both sides of the country. And things would go relatively smoothly on this end. The sorting and the load-in in Fresno helped me categorize items to some extent, and I had a loose idea of where and how things would go in a 20×20 bin. There were plenty of dollies on hand as well. I stayed by the truck, pulling things out, bunching them according to what types of items they were, then telling everyone where everything went.

One residual: I no longer call my Hot Wheels collection “Hot Wheels.” I now refer to them as “Stupid Toy Cars.” Had someone told me in the mid-’90s, when I started collecting them, that I would lose my job and no longer have a place to showcase them and the economy would totally collapse and the

After the load-out, with Dana (center) and Lexy.

After the load-out, with Dana (center) and Lexy.

market for toy cars would fall through and that I couldn’t sell them if I tried, I never would’ve gotten into it. The record and CD collection, though, is another matter — music is hardwired in me. And the more bins of cars that my friends and I were pulling from the truck, the more they became Stupid Toy Cars.

Lexy, even a bundle of youthful manic energy at her most sedate — turns out to be an organizing fiend, and she directed operations on her end; she put directed everything into its place in the bin and mapped it all out on paper for me. I can’t believe how relatively smoothly this went. Back in Fresno on Monday, my friends Jen and Stacy told me they had been through several friends’ moves before and that this was one of the best-organized they’d ever done. And it was the same on this end.

We started sometime around 1:30; we were finished by 4. I kept a few things in the truck to bring home: my bicycle and bike rack, a few bins of clothes and shoes, and my paperwork. The bin was nearly full. And I could use a good extra bottle of water.

But Lexy Lex had an even better idea: ice cream. The Ashley’s at the Hamden Plaza. She and Dana, Paola and Harry all went as well. There was plenty of parking space for a rental, so that was fine. Harry opted for Chinese from next door; the rest of us went for the cold stuff. Another nice welcome-home.

But as 6 o’clock approached, one thing was for certain: I was beyond exhaustion. Lex and Dana were concerned that I would fall asleep at the wheel. So Lex drove shotgun with me and Dana followed in her pickup. And Lexy was wise to do so. I felt myself fading as I got to Prospect. She gt me singing and kept my mind going, kept me awake. One last huge sigh of relief as I pulled the truck up in front of the house again.

For nearly falling asleep behind the wheel, I couldn’t get to sleep, though. I brought the bike and rack down to the shed in the backyard and brought in a couple of bins. My father helped me with a couple of the bins. The clothes were strewn about the truck, and one of the bins with paperwork opened and scattered in the truck. Shit. Didn’t want to deal. I shut the rear door, locked it up and saved it for the next day.

I out some of my clothes away in the 9×9 space that would be my bedroom. When we moved here when I was a tiny one, it was our toy room. When Ken was born, it became his room. And after he left, it became a guest room. And for now, my safe place. My folks bought a new dresser for the room when I came home, and it was filling up nicely. But the rest I could sort out later.

Monday I could finish cleaning out the truck, bring it to the dropoff point and finish the sorting. But I still couldn’t get to sleep. It wasn’t until 11:30, after the Channel 8 news went off, that I finally said “uncle.”

I didn’t move until 10:15 the next morning.

Epilogue

I didn’t spend much time screwing around after my 10-and-a-half-hour sleep. I had things to do. First business: cleaning out the truck. I had clothes to take out, then had to sweep out the back.

My neighbor Tom came over and gave me a hand taking the remaining bins around to the back patio. We had a lot of catching up to do. And he was nice enough to offer to follow me to the drop-off place in Beacon Falls, about 20 minutes away, and bring me back.

As I was sweeping out the truck, I saw my neighbor Janet — a year older, also living in the home where she grew up, diagonally across the street, getting the mail.  Just as a reflex, I waved. She looked puzzled for a second before waving back. Oops. Did she know who I was? Actually, Mom later told me that she had told Janet’s mother about me, so she knew.

My father came out to see how things were going as I locked up the truck and reattached the dolly one last time. It’s heavy enough, but easy to pick up and maneuver with one hand. He asked me if I needed a hand; I told him, “I’m fine. Y’know, I didn’t trade in all my boy cards when I transitioned.” He laughed.

I was ready to go about 2:30. Tom followed me down Route 68 through Naugatuck to Route 8, the highway that runs along the Naugatuck River, to the final destination: a used car place in Beacon Falls.

I was concerned about making turns once I got to Beacon Falls. Let’s face it: Older parts of the country just aren’t built for trucks. Tight turns, cramped spaces. The dropoff place was on South Main Street — the old Route 8 before it was bypassed in the early ’80s. It was a divided highway; I was going south and the place was northbound. So I had to make a tight U-turn. And I did. And I didn’t have enough room. I would have to back up, even with the dolly. But thankfully, traffic on South Main is considerably lighter than it was in childhood. I had some time in case I need to back up. Anyway, it turned out fine.

I pulled up in front of the car lot. The guy at the desk was older; he reminded me of Paul from Orange County Choppers. He told me his son was the boss and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t sure where to put it, but he asked me if I had filled the tank. “You might want to go down the street to the Mobil station. Otherwise they charge you $8.50 a gallon here to fill it.” So he unhitched the dolly and I headed to the Mobil. And it didn’t look like the station — at the end of the street — was very accommodating to large trucks.

Oh well, here goes nothing. I pulled in. And the guy in charge didn’t look very happy to see me. “Bring it around to the other side,” he said. I thought he meant to the other side of the island. As I was wedging myself into place, he said no. There was actually a diesel pump right next to the building. But it would entail backing up, pulling out, going back out, doing a lot of tight K-turns, and after a couple minutes, being close enough for him to fuel me up on the driver’s side. It was about 50 bucks; what’s 50 more bucks at this point? And I needed more help backing the fucker out on the road. Gas Station Guy was pissed about having to help me back out — some dumb broad who didn’t know how to drive a truck …

I returned to the car place. “Paul” told me to back it in. There were trucks diagonally parked and there was a space. But he was nowhere to be found as I turned the wheel and made the cut. But the space was too narrow and my turn was too tight, and soon I was up tight against the front left corner of the van to my right.

“Oh, no!” I said out loud. This wasn’t gonna be good.

I put it in drive and tried to drive back out. And I heard the grinding as I damaged the driver’s side mirror of the van and cracked the plastic bumper of the van. (Whoever heard of a plastic bumper on a rental truck?)

“NO! NO! NO! FUCKING NOOOOOOOO!”

I was shouting at the top of my lungs. Of all the things — I get all the way across the country unscathed, and 10 fucking feet from the end, I get into a mishap. God! Are you KIDDING me?

I took a deep breath — the damage was done already — I was able to back it in finally. But now I had to fill out paperwork. “Paul” said, “I don’t know what to do; it’s my son’s place,” and he made a call to find the paperwork that we had to fill out. I mean, that’s what damage waivers are for, but I shouldn’t have had to park the truck in the first place. That’s their responsibility. And I was worried that Penske would come at me for the damage. (They never did. I never heard from them.)

The paperwork done, and the uncertainty of the damaged van hanging over my head. I got in Tom’s truck and we headed back to Prospect.

And so the adventure really begins …

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2 Responses to “Going Home, Days 6-7, 8/18-19/12: Deliverance”

  1. Drew Cucuzza Says:

    After the second “Stupid Toy Cars” I thought “Hmm, Fran’s relationship to Hot Wheels seems to have changed a bit.”

  2. Alexis Says:

    Think of them as artwork, something that might be valuable to whomever inherits them.

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