Tuesday, August 15, 2006

St Augustine, Florida

The Car Saga: Post-Script

Mention the State of Florida to my uncle Lincoln—who is, in the end, a New Yorker— and he'll reply, “Oh, the State of Waiting?” This is not exactly his best joke, but still, you do an awful lot of waiting in Florida.

An awful lot.

Especially if your car is broken and no one quite knows how to fix it.

So my eventual arrival in St. Augustine was something of a miracle, if only because it meant that some sort of waiting had ended. If the car broke again, at least it would break somewhere new, somewhere far from the lonely sprawl of Gibsonton, and if it didn't, well, I could finally get on with my vacation. While driving in absolute fear that the car would indeed break again, of course.

In total I spent three weeks in Florida, and, in all honesty, I'll probably never go back. Florida is for the most part a vacuum of culture, the place people go precisely when they want to go somewhere where there is no pressure to see or watch or do or participate in anything. Gainesville and Tallahassee are home to the University of Florida and Florida State, respectively, but both schools have better track records in football and Playboy's yearly party rankings than in educating students.

And, of course, there are the retirees, who have relocated to what Lincoln also calls Florida “God's Waiting Room.” If you go to Sun City Center, for instance, you'll see retirees driving golf carts around town, to the supermarket, to their friends' houses, and so on, which is all a social design so that those who have lost the ability to drive legally are still mobile. Noble, in a way; but also miserable, because they, and everyone else, should be able to walk. Not that anyone ever does, even the able bodied; and if you do, you are prone to abuse from passing cars.1

So without a car of your own, life can be unpleasant, if not miserable, in Florida, as mine was for much of those three weeks, and as much as one can say miserable when all the necessities—things like food and shelter and water—are available and you're staying with a friend. But even now the car trouble colored my trip ever since, made me travel differently from how I would have liked made me more skittish than the person I wanted to be.

*

After Michael meets me in Arcadia, he is nice enough to buy me dinner at The Clock, a Florida chain of diners that caters mostly to the elderly or the almost-elderly. (Apparently the name of the restaurant is not ironic, as delicious as that might be.) It's the place recommended by the tow truck driver, himself creeping up on retirement age, and while my grilled cheese on squishy white bread is stunningly acceptable, I am thankful that now, with Michael here, the day is just about over.

This sense turns out to be the one thing in the entire car saga that I sense correctly. Outside the garage, a tenth of a mile away, Michael and I transfer everything in my trunk into the trunk of his goldish Camry, which is most everything I've brought along: a pile of books, small blue duffels filled with socks and underwear, a cd case, a plastic tool box of cone wrenches and chain whips and other heavy bicycle tools. The drive takes an hour and fifteen or twenty minutes, and at Michael's we unload everything into a wobbly pyramid in his living room, and plan to get up early the next morning.

The next morning we return to Arcadia to visit the mechanic, who says he's very busy but agrees to check out the problem. The interior of his shop is a rectangular concrete floor with large toolboxes wheeled about, and it appears not to have any lifts, which I find disconcerting. He tends to wander away when I'm talking to him; and makes absolutely no effort to keep me appraised at all of, well, anything, which is okay with Michael since it means he has a legitimate reason for not showing up to work. Still, we show back up at 4:30, and he tells us that he hasn't been able to replicate the problem, and so there will be no charge.

And neither can the mechanic, recommended by Michael's coworkers, in Ruskin, even though the car bucks on the road from Arcadia and on I-75 as Michael tails me back to his work, where we leave the car for the night. Waiting for the mechanic in Ruskin costs three days; and waiting for an appointment at the Nissan dealership in Bradenton, 20 miles south, takes until Monday, which brings my total time without the car to a week, and my time in Florida to 12 days.

The car bucks strongly on the way to the Nissan dealership, and, finally, I am able to demonstrate to a mechanic—well, a technician—the problem. He recognizes it immediately. “The distributor,” he says in a thick Boston accent. He's from Brookline, as it turns out, so for the rest of his ridealong we talk about Massachusetts, where I lived for a few years as a kid.

He tells me that they can only replace the distributor as one unit, which will cost $400 or $500, but he's going to run some tests to make sure first. As Michael drives me home, I am relieved that, even if it's going to be a stupid amount of money to fix the car, it's going to be fixed and I can leave. Soon.

*

According to Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, hope is the last, and possibly worst, of the sorrows of mankind that Pandora let loose upon the earth. Hope is a comfort but also a delusion, a belief that one can control the future when the future is in the control of the gods alone.

I mention this because, on this particular point, I am inclined to agree with Hesiod. Hesiod may never have been stuck for three weeks in the pretty-much-completely-miserable state of Florida, but I'm sure that he encountered his own troubles among the “thousand or so other horrors spread out among men.” For the next 10 days my life is a cycle of hope, disappointment, and slowly escalating frustration: The car, eventually is fixed, according to the dealer; but I get it, and it doesn't work. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

So, like I said, the approach of St. Augustine was something of a miracle, even if I had intended to make it all the way to Savannah but decided instead not to push the car or my own nerves, which made me jump at ever patched seam in the road and every pothole, worried that the car was bucking again.

The most important feature of St. Augustine, obviously, was and is that it is not Tampa. Indeed, it's about 4 hours from Tampa, which is a long time in a car you can't trust. At this point, I think the best I can offer is a text messaging conversation with my mother, whom I had introduced to “texting”2 maybe a week earlier.

MARIO
St. Augustine!

MOM
(RE:) At least it is pretty there .

MARIO
I noticed!

MARIO
Who knew there was something in Florida worth seeing?

MOM
(RE:) You are not out of the woods yet ! When do you leave the state?

MOM
(RE:) You are not out of the woods yet ! When do you leave the state?

MARIO
Tomorrow, I think.

And I did, even giving out a little roller-coaster whoop of joy at the state line. But even though in St. Augustine I walked around the old fortress at dusk and sat to watch the sailboats motor along the intercoastal; and was hit on by the gay bartender at a pizza restaurant, who told me that this is the one safe place for Family in Florida; and took a ghost tour narrated by a disaffected and bored tour guide who kept playing with her lantern while she was talking; and stood next to a family of four from somewhere in the South, who wouldn't stop talking about Tony Stewart all throughout the tour; and the next morning finally dipped my feet in the Atlantic, thus somehow symbolically completing my journey across the country, even if I didn't actually did my feet in the Pacific at the beginning; and toured the oldest house in country with a contractor who gave both myself and the tour guide an explanation of the historical methods of planing wood; I felt listless, like I didn't do anything, didn't see anything, and that, if asked, I wouldn't have anything to say about St. Augustine.

And this, I think, is the best description, best explanation I can give about what the car trouble cost me. More than time, and money, and my ephemeral happiness, what was lost was my sense of humor in unexpected places, and that calmness that let me wait, and wait, and wait for the right detail about a place to reveal itself. It's as if my car—which did, to be fair, give me the right kind of freedom for my trip—replaced joie de vivre with a teenage ennui, the sense that unless I get what I want right now, everything is boring.

But I wasn't bored with St. Augustine; I certainly found enough to see and do. Instead, St. Augustine couldn't offer what I was looking for, what I needed: Calm; safety; some sort of assurance that I didn't have to worry about my car or the trip any longer. This is not a fair criticism, I know, but life were fair we'd all be thousandaires.

To be fair, I doubt anywhere, on that day, could give me what I was looking for.


1 “Why are you walking?!? Asshole! Get a car!”

2 This is a terrible word, and I promise never to use it again. I apologize for using it here. In fact, I apologize for even thinking it.

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