That summer, we were laying the groundwork for Grandma’s move from Napa to Roseville. Rental van companies were being researched and compared. Furniture was being measured. Tonnage of rooms was being guesstimated. Boxes were being collected, and early efforts made at packing up certain non-essential items that could make the trip ahead of the rest. Grandma was worried about everything and trying not to show it.
It was in this environment of harried anticipation that I drove the infamous Green Dart (contrary to its nickname, not a Dodge Dart but a 1995 Ford Contour – but speedy, like a dart!) into Napa to make preparations. In this case, that meant organizing and boxing what I could while Grandma tried to distract me with offers of hot dogs and iced-over ice cream. Since I had come to Napa alone with only a small overnight bag, I decided to make a dent in the work of actual moving day by loading the car with as much of her closet stuff as I could for the trip back. The spare room that would become Grandma’s in Roseville was already cleared out, and it made sense to fill it closet first.
And so my last deed before leaving Napa was to load my trunk and back seat up with stuff from Grandma’s closet area: An intriguing mix of vinyl albums from the ’70s (Engelbert Humperdinck figured prominently), family photo books, ornate floral comforters, vintage women’s work wear, and a freestanding jewelry case full of jewelry that pulled off into two layers to sit beside itself in the back seat.
Oh, and a jumbo-sized party pack of pantyhose in a big clear plastic tub.
This was striking for the fact that I did not know it was possible or desirable to buy pantyhose in such quantities, and also for the fact that I had not known Grandma to wear pantyhose (or the dresses that would require them) in my lifetime. Apparently she had bought big sometime in the ’70s and was still keeping them handy just in case. From the closet’s top shelf, they moved to the top of the heap in my car’s back seat.
All told, the half of Grandma’s closet I emptied made for a weighty load. I didn’t have a cell phone in those days, so I promised Grandma I’d call when I got home. As she waved goodbye from her porch, I imagined a stray nylon poking out the mouth of the tub and catching a breeze through the open window to wave back. I was leaving, I think, later than I had planned. Had I been delayed by a hot dog on my way out the door? It was of little consequence as long as I beat work traffic. The Green Dart, zippy champion though it was, had a penchant for overheating in stop-and-go conditions.
Thirty minutes out of Napa, as I merged onto Interstate 80 at the speed of a CVS shopper, it was clear I had miscalculated. As the sun bore down outside, I turned off the AC and turned on the heat to make the engine cooler and myself sweatier. Still, I watched the temperature gauge creep steadily up over the next 20 minutes, engine struggling under the toxic trifecta of Grandma’s stuff, the sun’s heat, and poor timing’s stop-and-go traffic. By the time the car cried uncle, steam billowing out from under the hood, I pulled off to the side of the highway just two or three exits up from where I had entered it.
Well, shoot. What to do? No cell phone. None of the traffic inching past seemed interested in stopping. It’s a tricky thing, having the car knowledge of a damsel in distress but not the appearance of one. When you’re a guy who looks old and shady enough to probably know what he’s doing with a car on the side of the road, people don’t stop. Especially if their nerves are already shot, calculating how late this godforsaken traffic will make them to wherever they’re headed.
I found a Call Box, the idea of which seemed quaint but the reality of which I had never actually encountered before. I did have AAA roadside service, so figured I’d dial the number on the card and see about getting towed home. In this traffic, even that might take several hours. I picked up the phone, ready to dial, and a woman’s voice immediately popped in. She seemed as surprised as I to find herself on the other end of the line. It bears mentioning that, notwithstanding my own techno-stubbornness, cell phones were already quite in vogue by this time. Nobody was using Call Boxes anymore. It was probably the first contact this woman had had in months. She sounded sleepy.
Anyway, I hadn’t expected a voice so soon. For some reason, my natural response was to slam down the phone in surprise and run back to the car.
It had probably begun to dawn on me, digging through my wallet for that AAA card and standing by that Call Box, how this would play out. In the absolute best-case scenario, some industrious tow truck driver would get a call about a car stalled on the side of the highway and arrive quickly to find… me, a suspicious-looking guy in his 20s, sweating in summer heat, in a dusty old Ford Contour with paint peeling, loaded down with THE CONTENTS OF AN ELDERLY WOMAN’S CLOSET.
The first thing he’d see as he approached the car would be a jumbo-sized party pack of pantyhose through the back windshield. Once that caught his eye, he’d look closer and notice that the plastic tub was sitting atop two levels of a rich mahogany jewelry case, which were protectively padded with floral comforters and women’s pantsuits.
I’d try to make a joke of it, to be sure. I’d try to explain myself. But I’d feel his doubts and suspicions festering over the course of our hours together in his rumbling truck, my dainty car full of womanly paraphernalia being tugged along behind.
“Oh sure, that makes sense. Could happen to anyone,” he’d say to me.
“You sure meet some weirdos out there,” he’d tell his tow-trucking buddies over beers later that night. “Boy, have I got a story for you…”
No, it wouldn’t go down like that. But I’d already picked up a Call Box phone. What do they do if you hang up one of those without talking? They probably know the location. Do they send someone to check on you anyway? Is wasting a Call Box operator’s time an arrestable offense, like filing a false police report?
I was sitting in the car mulling my options and considering the likelihood of being incarcerated when I noticed a California Highway Patrol car coming up on the shoulder behind me. Well, this is it, I thought. I’ll be on the evening news. To my surprise, the CHP officer merged into the still-crawling slow lane long enough to pass, then continued on the shoulder to the next off-ramp. Really dodged a bullet there.
By now, the car had been sitting for a while. I decided it was probably cool enough to pop the hood (I knew how to do that) and look around. The coolant appeared to have exploded, dousing everything in its vicinity and leaving the reservoir empty. Since I was then in the habit of traveling with an extra jug of coolant for just such occasions, I waited a few more minutes and eased off the cap (imagining an explosion) to refill the tank. Having done that and checked the dipstick – thereby exhausting the entirety of my car knowledge – I closed the hood and hoped for the best, re-entering traffic probably not that many cars behind where I’d left it 30 minutes before.
The traffic never eased up and the temperature gauge hovered menacingly near the danger zone for the rest of the drive, but I made it back to Roseville with all Grandma’s stuff and some portion of my pride still intact.
She hasn’t listened to Engelbert or worn pantyhose since she’s been here.