Main St USA

Savannah bus station

My bags

I told my friends I had decided to take a bus from Atlanta to Savannah, hang out with my friend Olga for 36 hours and return home Martin Luther King, Jr. day before dinner. Larry was not enthusiastic about my plan--referring to Greyhound as having been "cleaned up a lot, but still bummy." P gave me a look of pity mingled with disgust when I mentioned it. I might as well have told her I had a boil that needed lancing.  

Yet, the writer in my heart looks forward to having a good story to tell when I returned--even if I had to suffer six hours listening to a phlegmatic cough or risk developing a lice infection from my seat's upholstery. I can't bear the boring travel stories people tell at cocktail parties about the thread count of the sheets in the hotel or the disappointing service at a "must do" restaurant. Give me strange people, weird food, harrowing transportation methods, or at the very least wasn't there something strange about that Days Inn in Union City where the receptionist had bright green fingernails three inches long?  

I felt a little self-righteous sitting in the Forsyth Street station in downtown Atlanta as dayworkers in bandanas bought Cokes and a young girl wearing fairy wings slept sprawled over three chairs. I wasn't some Birkenstock-wearing yuppite, who needed a neck pillow and bottle of Perrier on even the shortest flight. I was traveler, with a junk food-filled plastic bag, hungry for the wilds of Interstate 85 South! 

I noticed that the differences between the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the Atlanta Greyhound station were stark, much like the economic prospects their respective clientele. The airport's palate of cream and black is complimented by a wide variety of abstract art, including a bronze dinosaur sculpture. You can have a drink at a fancy piano bar or buy an iPod from a vending machine. The Greyhound station is across the street from an abandoned building and the inside is painted in stain-hiding blues and greys. 

The Greyhound "restaurant" is a grill that has what looked like day old hot dogs under a hot lamp. Actually they had to be a day old, because it was 9:00 in the morning. Ironically, food costs about the same no matter how you're traveling: $4 for a blueberry muffin (taken from the freezer, so I was told it needed time to defrost), $2 for a 20 oz Coke, $1 for a 5oz bag of Cheetos. I wanted to cry out "highway robbery!" in the way only obnoxious American tourists can. But we all know Americans only behave badly when traveling outside of our borders, or when our flight has been delayed, or when our taxi driver wants to cheat us, or when our team looses a game-- oh, never mind.  

The bus smelled like baby powder and mildew when I climbed on. My muscles strained to hoist my backpack high enough above the seats as I walked down the narrow aisle. I chose a window seat five rows behind the driver. I didn't want to be too close to the front and the wheels, nor too near the back and the bathroom--knowing from my experiences in Europe such a position could become very undesirable assuming any "stoppage" occurred.  

We started our journey with only a handful of passengers. The bus driver pulled closed his bullet-proof glass protective door separating us from him and the bus rumbled forward around a tight corner, bringing us within a hairsbreadth of the abandoned building across the street. Instead of the lulling, polite tones of a flight stewardness asking us for our safety to do this or that, the driver--who sounded like Judge Joe Brown--chastised his handful of passengers. telling them to get off their cell phones and listen to the rules, namely: "no cussing, no smoking, and no loud music."  

Unlike on planes where everyone wants to know who you are and where you're going, on buses, nobody wants to talk to you. I tried to strike up a conversation with an elderly woman wearing fur a few rows across from me. She was on her way to Fort Stewart and got right back on her cell phone as soon as she finished answering my question. I didn't want to ask the pony-tailed man with dirty jeans anything. He reeked of cigarettes, like he hadn't changed his clothes for a few thousand smokes. There also was a middle-aged man with a vintage 90's leather jacket and crisp white hair who kept chatting up the pony-tail man. Only pony-tail man wasn't very amused with having a seat buddy. This may be because there were about 40 empty seats.  

There also was a man I thought might be a drug dealer on the bus because he kept talking about "making a delivery" in St. Thomas and how he wasn't allowed to finish the job because, "Ben was really stressed out and didn't want [him] to even get on the boat." I tried to listen in to his other conversations throughout the rest of the trip, but got no further juicy details. He later turned on his iPod so loud I could hear the Dave Matthews Band lyrics if I concentrated. He was breaking rule #3, but I'm not a tattle-tale.  

We drove and drove and I felt the steady buzz of the bus from my feet into my spine until my extremities were numb. The smell didn't bother me any more, but the empty package of Edy's Dibs at my feet kept rolling back toward me, no matter how many times I kicked it away. 

We passed Hapeville (the Delta international headquarters), Dublin (featuring four churches all within 100 yards of each other as well as Jo-Jo's Burgers and Fish where you can get a shrimp and fries basket with a drink for $4.99), and Macon (where there was a stark difference between the rows and rows of mobile homes and all the chain hotels and restaurants immediately off the interstate exit ramp).  

I smiled as I noticed the pine trees getting leaner and taller along the road. This part of the South brings back so many fond memories for me of driving with my father through Macon and Perry, Thomasville, and finally Tallahassee on my visits to see him. I used to look out at the old houses zooming by, large dots on the landscape amidst miles of cotton fields and pecan trees. 

I'd absorb all the names of the mom and pop businesses on the town main streets and look in their windows. Somebody would have a sign up at their pharmacy selling wigs and just down the road you could see a fishing equipment display next to a clothing consignment store.  

There were never any grocery chains like the Krogers and Harris Teeters I was used to. The bank always had the nicest building and the clock. 

I would wonder what these areas looked like before anyone lived here and cultivated large farms. I'd imagine who used to own the boarded up gas station or cafe. Soon a whole group of fake people would clutter up my mind. The First Baptist Church pastor's wife had a big bosom and imposing grey hair. The mechanic never married; he wasn't very good-looking and always kept to himself. Tabitha the shopkeeper only traveled out of town once to go to Gainesville for a funeral. She didn't like it very much and decided she was just as happy in Vidalia. The family living in that one room shack with the trees growing out of it were very musical, especially the oldest son who knew almost any song you asked him to play.  

At some point about 100 miles from Atlanta, you begin to notice that the roads have flattened out and the sky has ballooned above you, a brilliant blue with fluffy clouds, assuming good weather. (Why does the sky look so much more beautiful the closer you get to sea level?) My dad and I would listen to Mozart or Bob Marley or Jimmy Buffett, and I felt almost overwhelmed with how much I loved this part of the world and the stories it could tell. Even if they were just figments of my day-dreaming.  

As we entered Savannah city limits, I came back to real time and my heart dropped a little. Savannah is certainly beautiful and full of mystery, but like so many great American cities, she makes her bread and butter off of her "character." Her tour guides and home owners are itching to tell you in great detail about this or that murder, or military siege, or historical house's cost in 1888. They leave little room for stories about Joe the plaster worker who enjoyed a fairly uneventful life--but did get to work on the Mercer house--and used to drink his coffee every morning with his wife while watching the barges come in with the tide. 

This is why a bus ride will tell you more about American history than any trolly or museum. Tour guides will never show you the charity shop with the 1972 china that Mrs. Wilkinson donated after her husband died in 1987. They aren't interested in the Elk's club scandal last spring where Thom Gleanly refused to vote for Bill Robinson because Bill hadn't given him his lawnmower back yet.  

The same kinds of people riding the bus today, lived in these towns 50 or 60 years ago (although no doubt they were segregated). They were the ones upon whose lives the rest of us built our futures. Because if great-grandpa Harry hadn't gotten in that mine accident and lost his leg and decided to leave Harrisville and get a job in Factoryville, maybe I wouldn't be in Atlanta now. And his story, although not one for the history books, is my story too.



9Volts of Despair

Have you ever noticed that things in your house or in your car go to decide to quit on you all at once? My attempts to fix them are something Paulo Coelho should write about--there's always a simpler answer that never occurs to me until many repressed tears later. Perhaps, the ancient Mayans knew that one day, many thousands of years later, a blue-eyed child would be born, far to the North. And this child would be unique, for she would find order, and bring unto it chaos. 

I believe this is why the Mayan calendar ends 24 hours before my 30th birthday (2012, for those of you who want to start brushing up on your post-apocalyptic survival skills).

Alternatively, I could just be an unlucky clutz and a dangerous DIY-er. 

But I digress.

A few days ago, I heard my smoke detector chirping. It was a high pitched squeal that recurred every minute. Of course this means the battery is low and the chirping was annoying enough to get me to go to the grocery store that afternoon to buy new Duracell 9Volts. 

Once home, I drag my striped ottoman (one of two that are a sort of velvet material that really isn't meant to be stood upon, but is all I have) to the spot directly under the smoke detector and the attic door. I pull down the cover of the smoke detector and see the two batteries. I pull one out, then the other. 

I think, "Hey, this isn't so bad." I imagine myself bragging to friends at a dinner party about how I am pretty handy around the house. It feels empowering, like I am a pioneer woman baking cornbread in a wooden stove or making soap from lye and ash.

I pop in the first battery. "Easy as pie!"I say. Oh how brash and overconfident I was then! I should have remembered the lesson of the pie. What I think is easy, usually ends up being a debacle. 

As soon as the second battery made contact with the smoke alarm, the alarm started going off. I felt a bit like a dog getting hit with a super high frequency whistle. I clutched my ears in pain and gritted my teeth to pull out the second battery. Had the alarm only needed one battery? Why then were there two slots? Was there a crossed wire somewhere? Was the alarm supposed to go off until you replaced the cover and hit "silence"?

I had no clue what the answer was so, like any dutiful scientist, I decided to try replacing the second battery again a few hours later to see if I got the same result. My ears regret that decision.

Meanwhile, I left one battery in the detector and, strangely, there was no chirping. Something, as they say in afterschool specials, was terribly wrong. 

Embarrassed though I was, I called my neighbor Mr. B and asked him to take a look. He works at Home Depot and is a close family friend. Mr. B wasn't available for a couple of days, so while I waited I assumed that one battery was probably fine. 

As I came to learn, however, from Mr. B's thorough examinations, I had shorted out the smoke detector upstairs and it was likely upon inspection that none of my other three smoke detectors were in working order. 

On the one hand, I was glad I discovered this now, given I've taken up oil painting and chair refinishing and have multiple, highly flammable substances in the house. On the other hand, my stomach is hollow and my brain can't stop rummaging through all the various "what if" horrors that could have happened. I experienced a similar reaction after Barak Obama won and I couldn't believe that I really didn't have to face a future with Sarah Palin as vice president.

It being 8pm when Mr. B goes back across the street, I decide to pick up new smoke detectors immediately after work tomorrow. I can make it through one night can't I?

Sort of. I have to stay up half the night reading so I don't think about the odds of having a fire the one night that I am aware that none of my smoke detectors are working. I have to not think about the gas stove and the clutter in the garage that is near some weird wiring. I have to meditate so that I don't contemplate a scenario in which some hot sauce in my fridge drips upon the moldy gingerbread below it causing an intense release of heat that results in spontaneous combustion and a resulting fire so ferocious I am burnt to a crisp before you can say, "Bob's your uncle." 

Of course, I'm paranoid--to a certain extent--for good reason. It's true that most fires occur at night and 2/3s of deaths from home fires could have been prevented if people had properly working smoke detectors. Sadly, its despicably natural to forget about regularly testing your smoke detector and changing the batteries when mourning the loss of an hour or celebrating the gain of one. And in my neighborhood, two houses have been completely destroyed by fires in the past 10 years. 

At some point, I fall into an uneasy sleep and wake up late and go to work with globs of concealor over the dark bags under my eyes. I invest in four Diet Cokes (twice my rationed allowance) to keep me awake and as soon as 5:00pm hits, I'm out the door to the Home Depot.

I assume the choices of smoke detectors will be limited, but there, again, I am wrong.  Perhaps its a symptom of our previously healthy economy that you can choose between 30 different types of smoke detectors. 

You have your most basic, battery operated beeping devices to those that can warn you in English or in Spanish that there is a fire, to those that can be set up around the house and can send each other messages to warn people in English or in Spanish that there is a fire. And of course, there are combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors, carbon monoxide and combustible gas detectors, infared photosensitive detectors--it's a plethora of safety devices that ends up making you feel guilty by choosing anything less than the most sophisticated, and extremely expensive version you can find.  

So, I buy three smoke detectors for $47 each plus tax. I feel good about my purchase. I've done the right thing by buying the best, the most sophisticated detectors. They're so advanced they might as well brew me coffee while they lie in wait like sentinels on castle guard. I sigh with relief as I drive home and listen to Delilah counseling a love-sick trucker.

I cook myself a delicious spaghetti dinner, without a care on my mind as the gas stove pops and crackles to boil water. I run the 19 year old GE dryer which has served my family well, but has a small problem with the lint catcher that makes it a bit of a hazard, and I blissfully rock out to Dolly Parton's "Jolene." 

My belly full, and a couple of episodes of All Creatures Great and Small on "The Netflix" and I am ready to tackle my smoke detectors. 

I put them on my bed in a neat little row and open the first box. It's wrapped like a Christmas present  in a plastic bag and then a translucent red "shower cap." I open the owner's manual and start reading. My face falls. My dinner does backflips.

Apparently, I bought the wrong kind of smoke detector--correction: three of the wrong kind. This one requires some kind of electrical wiring to work. The "battery operated" bit displayed on the packaging is more like a footnote, a backup to the real deal.

They'll have to be returned, I whisper solemnly. I put everything neatly back in its wrapping, check to make sure I have my receipt, and go downstairs to check the gas stove and dryer one more time. 

Another sleepless night. 

By the end of the week, I've reached a reckless hysteria. I still wasn't sleeping well and I wasn't making time to return the smoke detectors either. I had given myself up to the benign indifference of the universe. I could be toast or I could be Taoist. But today, I found myself back at Home Depot, returning the smoke detectors and buying the second cheapest ones available--double-checking they needed no special wiring. I spent 10% of what I had the first time. 

Of course, what I hadn't reliased was that, because they were new and a different size from the old detectors, I would need to drill new screws into the wall. More problems bubbled up like dinosaur victims in a tar pit. 

I didn't have the right drill bits for the right size screw--and how are you supposed to know what size a drill bit is anyway if it's not written on the bit? The "minor" secondary concern of how to get the old bit out of the drill was also befuddling me.

Then of course, I was a bit unsettled by the idea of screwing things, unsupervised, into my freshly painted ceiling. To rub more misery into the mix, the first detector I put together wouldn't stop chirping after I tested it. So every few minutes I would hear a high pitched squeal that pierced my ear drums and set my nerves on edge. 

It seemed a comedy of errors. Shouldn't installing a smoke detector be the EASIEST thing for a homeowner to do? It certainly is one of the most important. And yet, at every turn, I was thwarted. I thought I had brought order to find only entropy. 

I resolved the chirping for the smoke detector by doing what any technologically challenged person would do. I pushed buttons, removed and replaced batteries, until some random combination of actions resolved the problem. I had to repeat this cycle for the other two detectors after testing them. 

I'm now half deaf.

While I seemed so close to the finish line, I am sorry to admit, I gave up. I gave in to temptation and surrendered myself to asking my neighbors and friends for the name of a good handy man/woman. 

For now, I have put the smoke detectors in places where they would be effective although not permanently installed and I have a couple  of easy reading books next to my bed. Like my great-grandmothers before me, who settled in wild and dangerous lands centuries ago, I'm prepared to wait it out.