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800 MILES: Part 5

July 5, 2010

Featured Article, Words

“800 MILES (or Parenthood is not for Wusses)”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | PART 5 | Part 6

Seriously. Lou Gossett Jr., is standing in the parking lot of this Chattanooga U-Haul. Or maybe what the Lou Gossett Jr., of an “An Officer and a Gentlemen” would look 25 years after the cameras stopped rolling and the film’s  young star Richard Gere went off to become one of the Dalai Lama’s peeps.

This guy, a lean, gimlet-eyed Gossett-look-a-like in blue jeans and a dark shirt, has skin resembling blackened beef jerky, lightly oiled. He looks to have been baking in the Tennessee sun for the last 50 years. And since he is the go-to-guy at this U-Haul for car dollies, he has me squarely in his sights, scanning me closely like radar. “You’ll want to see Alonzo,” said the woman at the U-Haul counter. And here’s Alonzo, seconds after he’d rolled out from underneath a trailer and stood to face me.

“Help you?” Alonzo says. And less in the remark but in his appraisal of this frazzled white guy who just got out of a U-Haul Ford is written about 200 years of history. Alonzo is one of those guys that knows what’s going on, has always known it. Maybe he lives in a middle-income black neighborhood in Chattanooga or — depending on U-Haul’s pay structure — a lower middle-income borough somewhere. But wherever he tosses his sweat-stained shirt after work, I bet his yard and house are neat as a pin and that he maintains his late-model car in pristine working order. I’ll bet he can fix a washing machine when it breaks.

I’ll also bet that for much of his career he has had to deal with frazzled white-collar guys in a hurry who couldn’t fix a washing machine if their lives and the lives of their cats depended on it, calming them with his amiable, no-nonsense, can’t-rattle-me demeanor. For while he shares Lou Gossett’s thin mustache, he has none of that character’s angry vibe. Quite the opposite, he exudes pure equilibrium.  This is the guy, I think, who should be running U-Haul. (No offense, Ed. I like you and all, but just think how cool it would be to have the U-Haul CEO be named ‘Alonzo’?)

I give him the scoop. Car dolly. Hauling a Honda 400 miles back home.  I tell him I’m a little crazy-anxious about hauling a car that far. Never done this before. Don’t want to screw it up, you know (ha-ha-ha). “This heat makes everyone a little crazy,” says Alonzo, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. He doesn’t smile, but does cock an eyebrow. “We’ll get you fixed up. You bring your truck around, now,” he says, donning some work gloves. And a few minutes later he has joined truck, hitch and car dolly, bouncing the hitch up and down noisily to make sure it’s secure.

“Now, you’ll want to pay real good attention,” he says stepping back to the car dolly. I hunker down beside him, resisting the urge to ask if wouldn’t mind coming along with me on the ride back home just to make sure I don’t do something brainless? (“Hi, honey! I’m back! This is Alonzo, he’s going to be staying with us tonight!”) As it is, Alonzo walks me through how you roll the tow-car up onto the two-wheeled dolly, how you strap and crank this webbing tight onto each of the car’s front tires, how you hook a set of bulky chains to the front axle, in case, God forbid, the car should roll off the dolly and into traffic behind you.

I try and absorb the info. Within the hour, I am back on Interstate 75 headed north, hauling my son’s black Honda behind me. The windows are down so I can look back and see that nothing is amiss. I notice a yellow school bus behind me with a sign over the windshield that says ‘Our Lady of Sorrow Dominican Republic Mission School.’ It is full of little Dominican girl students. With the window down I can hear them singing. I think it’s “This Little Light of Mine,” though in the traffic roar it could just as well be “Kumbaya.” The bus is tailing me a little too close for comfort when I look back and — Oh dear mother of god! — the Honda is now swerving wildly, one tire popped free of its dolly webbing. No-no-NO!! I see the webbing begin to loosen off the other tire from the wildly arcing car and pray the axle chains will keep the car hooked to the truck. Then I hear a metallic POP! In my rear-view mirror, I see scores of little Dominican faces stop singing and look up in wide-eyed horror as the runaway Honda breaks loose from the dolly and …

No, wait. I am still hunkered in the U-Haul parking lot beside Alonzo. He stares at me curiously. “You gonna be alright, son? Now, listen, I am not going to let you leave this lot until you are sure you understand how this works. Okay?” Okay! I say. I ask him to run through the whole process again. After he is done, I say, would you mind showing me this part of it again, please? If Alonzo sighs inwardly at my chowderheadedness, he does not show it. “You’ll do just fine,” he says.

I am having a bromance with Alonzo.

NOTE  No. 5 TO U-Haul CEO Edward “Ed” J. Shoen: Guy named Alonzo, didn’t get his last name, who works in the Chattanooga U-Haul lot? You know, the one near that frigging roundabout? Whatever you’re paying this guy, Ed, he deserves more. Can you bring up a pay increase for him at the next board meeting when you raise the issue about adding automatic windows, CD players and dash-mounted talking-GPS to your Ford trucks? Thanks, man.

With a handshake, me and Alonzo are parted. I head off across Chattanooga rush-hour traffic. I notice what various U-Haul staff had warned me about — that without a car to hold the dolly to the road, it shakes, rattles and clanks mercilessly, thumping loudly when it hits any bump or rut. When the road gets particularly rough, it sounds like I’m hauling a set of metal trash cans behind me. Twenty minutes later, I’m more than glad when my trusty iPhone GPS guides me into the back lot of a AAA wrecker shop. This is where my son’s Honda was hauled and given its death sentence (suspected warped engine block from excessive heat) after heaving its last along an interstate a half-hour after my son and his buddies had departed Bonnaroo that Monday.

A tattooed lady in the front office cheerfully accepts the three $20 bills I’ve previously negotiated via phone for the privilege of the dead vehicle simply sitting in their garage for four days. I see the Honda when I enter the garage. A  skinny white guy with a stubbly face who resembles what chicken gristle might look like were it to stand up and assume human form looks up from the innards of a Chevy missing its engine block. I explain my mission. And that I need help getting the car onto the dolly and attached to my U-Haul truck. “Alright, let’s get this over with,” he says, eager to get back to his business. I am seriously missing Alonzo. Chicken Gristle Man calls the tattooed lady, another office woman and a fellow mechanic to the car. I put it in neutral and altogether now we get behind the car and shove it out of the garage toward the dolly. It takes three tries for all of us to roll the car up onto the dolly and into place, whereupon Chicken Gristle Man says “Alright, you’re good to go,” after briefly pulling one of the wheel holders into place. He and the others disappear into the garage and roll down the garage door down. Clank!

I am alone in the lot. I am most certainly not good to go. All of Alonzo’s hand-holding to the contrary, I would also rather have the affirmation of a seasoned, grizzled, gristly AAA-wrecker guy that I have properly attached this vehicle to the dolly. A host of Dominican school girls’ lives rely upon me getting this right. I dash back in a side door and interrupt the fellow, whose head is back inside the Chevy. “Whattya’ need?” he says. “I just want to be sure I’ve got this right,” I says, feeling miserable and angry once again at Peggy Duffy. She was the pretty classmate in high school who led me to drop auto shop in favor of the study hall that she was in so I could look at her with Moon Pie eyes. Damn Peggy Duffy! I could be changing out timing belts and single-handedly attaching car dollies with confidence were it not for her cute brunette bangs and full, sensual lips.

The wrecker guy snorts. Gathers up the lit cigarette he has perched on a nearby shelf and legs it out to the dolly where he tugs. Points, checks, connects. Then stands  up. “Didn’t they give you any schooling on this at U-Haul?” he says cantankerously. “They did, but I want to make sure it’s all correct.” Chicken Gristle Man strides off, a contrail of cigarette smoke tracing his path back to that Chevy. “Alright,” he says, “now get the hell outa’ here and on the road.”

I think he means it with affection and love. | To Be Continued

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | PART 5 | Part 6

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