Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fun at the Grocery Store

This afternoon, James and I went to the Kroger grocery store we've visited several times in suburban Toledo and had a rather amusing experience at the check-out counter.

Our groceries are mostly fresh vegetables, which have item numbers that the clerk needs to enter. The pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman clerk was apparently new to the job, because it took her a long time to find each item number for the veggies. She asked the help of a much younger, sort of punk big gal with darkly-dyed magenta hair and sporting a nose-ring (who must have been an experienced Kroger clerk, maybe even a manager) for the item numbers. Miz Punk barked them out while glaring at the clerk along with James and me, because we were engaging the clerk in conversation and possibly distracting her.

The fortyish sour-faced woman behind us in line had only a few items, mostly cosmetics and what used to be called "sundries" -- oh, how old-fashioned this makes me sound! -- and she became more and more impatient for the clerk to finish ringing up our groceries. Her face became increasingly sour as our transaction proceeded to lengthen into a full-fledged "visit", as James chatted up this clerk.

Meanwhile, I went to my usual "post" at the foot of the counter with my own canvas bags, to stow the groceries myself. This in itself is considered "weird" in most stores. I usually encounter resistance from the baggers, and at the very least, surprise. Sometimes it's fun to tweak them and other times it's tiring to deal with their hostility.

Miz Punk shot me an exasperated look when I said, "You really know your vegetables!" as the new clerk asked her for yet another item number.

I don't think that these clerks are used to "socializing", as James and I always try to do with such people. He tries to lighten things up and add a bit of personal interaction to an otherwise robotic, frantic world.

I guess we're really weird.

This new clerk was clearly taken with us, asking the usual question if we were twins or at least related. "No", we told her, although sometimes we lie and say "Yes, how nice of you to notice".

She made the observation that we looked "fashionable and unusual, like movie stars from Beverly Hills!" and James told her that we tour with Phantom.

Then James told her the story of being in a grocery check-out line at Straub's in St. Louis, when (another) black clerk asked the same twin/brother question, and James quipped, "No, we're not, but you know we white guys all look alike!" Everyone within earshot had cracked up.

But today in Toledo, the sour-faced woman behind us flinched after hearing this story, and shifted one impatient foot to the other.

The clerk seemed to find it faintly amusing, but she didn't know quite how to react. Miz Punk manager, however, did not find it funny at all.

As the veggies made their leisurely way down the conveyor belt and I put them carefully into the two canvas bags, I made a point of smiling at the impatient woman as well as Miz Punk. James also included them in his witty repartee, which served only to irritate them further.

This in turn amused me all the more; the whole thing began to assume truly comical proportions as well as surreal ones.

James apologized to the woman behind us for taking so long, and her glare imperceptibly softened, but only for a fleeting instant. She stubbornly held onto her impatience and irritation.

Oh, what a cold world we have become! Most of us are in such a HURRY these days, getting bent out of shape at the least delay. People forget to breathe.

And heaven forbid that one should try to engage them in any personal interaction! I'd say that at least half the store clerks don't know how to respond to our pleasantries.

I almost burst out laughing when the clerk messed up James' credit card transaction and had to begin again. I flashed a smile at the woman behind him, shrugging my shoulders. Her glare deepened.

As we finally took our leave, I said to the woman, "Thank you for your patience" and she nodded her head curtly, while the clerk looked rather surprised.

At least we brought a little joy and entertainment to this new clerk on the job, and diffused whatever "angst" that may have existed in the situation of fumbling for item numbers. Perhaps she felt pressured by the manager who was standing impatiently at her elbow. And the woman in line behind us was NOT amused, but that was her issue, and her choice.

As James and I pulled out of the parking lot in our (equally weird) Scion XB, I waved at the impatient woman who had just emerged from the store, while James smiled at her.

This little scenario makes me yearn for the relative grace and laid-back atmosphere of our beloved town of Bisbee, Arizona, where folks are not such in a hurry and are more friendly. It won't be long before we're back home, thank God!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In Northwestern Ohio, at last

Quoting part of my previous entry: "We will be driving, and hope to avoid the interesting weather we've been 'enjoying' in the West lately."

No such luck.

James and I left Bisbee on Saturday, December 30th just before noon, and all was smooth until we reached Albuquerque at 7:30 p.m.

We had first noticed the snow, dusted along I-25 just past Socorro, 75 miles south of Albuquerque. It was just a trace at first. As we headed further northward, the snow upgraded from "dusting" to "blanket". Bigger mounds of the white stuff were piled along the road's edges.

By the time we arrived in Albuquerque, it was obvious that a major snow event had taken place in the past few hours.

James' usual prescience kicked in when he suggested that we stop at a Motel 6 south of town for the night, rather than brave I-40 in the dark. We would face it in the morning.

We got our first inkling at the magnitude of this storm when we noticed the foot-high stack of snow atop the low, umbrella-shaped bushes flanking the Motel 6 lobby. It must have come down in a WHOOOSH, in a very few short hours.

"Yes, indeed", the motel clerk told us at the front desk. The area had received eight inches of accumulation during the previous week's storm (the one which socked in the Denver airport for two days before Christmas) but then on the 30th, over SIXTEEN more inches fell that afternoon, only several hours before our arrival.

We were lucky to get a motel room. Most of the guests had been stuck there for an extra day. We got the second-to-last room available.

I turned on the TV for the local news, which announced that I-40 was closed from the Tramway exit north of town all the way eastward to Tucumcari, not far from the Texas border. This is a distance of 175 miles! Police were not able to say when this major highway would be open.

Road crews were in the process of de-icing the very treacherous roads and there were hundreds of travelers stranded along the highway, especially in the Clines Corners area, 60 miles east of Albuquerque. Efforts were being made to escort them to nearby shelters. But many ended up spending that long, cold night in their vehicles.

Had James and I not stopped for the night, WE would have been among them. This would have driven me absolutely bonkers.

Those poor people.

I-40 was closed all day Sunday, the final day of 2006, and through the night. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The highway was finally re-opened on Monday morning, January 1st, but with warnings to drive slowly and carefully because of the widespread ice.

We left Albuquerque shortly before 10 a.m.

The highway was indeed treacherous in spots. Traffic was often backed up for miles as the endless string of boxy trucks snaked into the distance. The left lane was often crusted with ice, from the banks of snow trickling down from the divider, which meant that traffic had to go in the right lane.

Stop and go. We inched slowly forward, off and on for several hours.

There had been thick fog overnight, which froze in the frigid temperatures. It coated all the trees along the highway with a filligree of sparkling crystal, which was indeed beautiful but added to the ice danger on the road.

The snow was indeed thicker at Cline's Corners, and my heart went out to all those hapless travelers who had been stranded there for 24 hours. What a mess that must have been!

Luckily the sun was shining and the temperatures crept above freezing as Monday progressed, and so we finally reached Tucumcari in early afternoon.

I suggested that we stop at Denny's for lunch, which turned out to be an unfortunate decision, as everyone else on the highway had the same idea. As we parked our Scion in the icy lot, several groups of people queued into the building and there were groups of people walking up quickly behind us.

This Denny's location in Tucumcari was half-asleep with minimal staff on New Year's Day; there were only two cooks and two waitresses who couldn't handle this sudden influx of people. James and I stood in line for several minutes before deciding to leave, and grab lunch further down the road.

It was definitely "group think" that day, with so many travelers who had been delayed for many hours.

We stopped at a Cracker Barrel in Amarillo, Texas at about 3:30 p.m., nearly two hours later.

There was even more traffic backed up coming from the opposite direction (westward bound) with miles and miles of mostly trucks, off and on all the way from Amarillo. So I guess we were lucky, in a way, and I tried to count my blessings during this stressful, long trip.

Since our three-day allotment of time to get from Bisbee to Toledo was now compressed into only two, we really had to haul ass to get there. We decided to try to drive all through the night if possible.

Through the Texas panhandle...into Oklahoma...horrible roads just before Oklahoma City...then northeast on the turnpike heading for Tulsa.

We stopped for dinner at a Denny's in Tulsa at 11 p.m. The ugliest fake, barely-decorated Christmas tree I've ever seen greeted us just inside the front door.

It was interesting to see the large number of Hispanics as employees and customers -- who would have thought? But this is farm country, after all. The Land of Opportunity.

From the plate glass window of our booth, we watched a couple of police cars with flashing lights pull over a driver on the frontage road and administer the young man a sobriety test.

Stomachs full, we hit the road again. 113 miles later found us just over the Missouri border near Joplin. I was behind the wheel for one of my rare occasions (James drives us practically everywhere; I'm a habitual passenger) and noticed a highway patrol car parked along the side of the road. I passed him with a vague sense of foreboding, although both James and I always drive the speed limit. The cruise control held steady at 70 mph.

It was 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday (Jan. 2) and I-44, heading northeast towards St. Louis, was pretty much deserted.

Then I saw headlights in my rear-view mirror, which stayed the same discreet distance behind our vehicle for about five minutes. I couldn't shake that strange feeling, though.

Sure enough! Suddenly those headlights were right behind my car, and the blue and red lights started flashing.

Gosh...I hadn't been stopped since my birthday in 1998, when I was speeding from Virginia Beach to Raleigh, NC. It felt weird -- and sort of a violation -- to be pulled over when I certainly wasn't speeding this time (and haven't in over eight years since that ticket).

I stopped and a young cop came to the passenger side, which we hadn't expected. Startled, James rolled down his window. The cop asked to see my license and said that although I wasn't speeding, he claimed that I was "weaving slightly" and he was concerned that I was falling asleep at the wheel. I assured him that I was wide-awake (pointing to my can of Coca-Cola).

The cop said that he wasn't going to issue a ticket but that he would like to check my license, so I was asked to accompany him to his cruiser. He gestured for me to slip into the passenger seat as he punched up my license on his laptop computer. I was tempted to make small-talk about his "cool computer" but refrained.

Of course everything checked out fine, and I was free to go, with an admonition to "stay awake".

As I got back behind the wheel and we continued on our way, I felt a mixture of gratitude that the cop was actually doing his job, and appeared concerned that I might be sleepy. But on the other hand, this young trooper did seem a bit over-zealous, as though he was just using the situation "for experience".

James surprised me by saying that I actually do weave a bit sometimes, which he attributes to my "lazy left eye". I admitted to him that my current nighttime vision with the soft contacts is not 100%. The "monovision" concept of using the same prescription for both eyes is not totally optimal for nighttime driving, in particular. But I really didn't think that I was actually weaving.

Perhaps I should wear my regular glasses for night driving.

This whole thing made me realize just how seldom I do actually drive; James and I rarely go anywhere separately and he's almost always the one behind the wheel. Have I gotten a bit rusty from many years of not driving? This kind of shocked me; I've certainly never been accused of "weaving" before! (I still think the cop was being a bit too zealous.)

Oh well.

We stopped for gas and then James drove another 100 miles to Lebanon, Missouri, where we finally pulled into a Holiday Inn Express hotel for much-needed sleep. It was already 3:30 a.m.!

I've always been curious about this hotel chain. It turned out to be a lot more expensive than Motel 6, and not really worth the value to me; who cares about labels on the pillows "soft" and "firm", or extra shampoo and soap in the cluttered bathroom, or the "designer" curved shower-rod, or extra-fancy bedspreads? And they demanded an extra $25 for our cat. (Why not make it a refundable deposit if the cat incurred no damage to the room?)

A few short hours later found us back on the road again at 9 a.m. Although exhausted and somewhat stressed, James and I were both psyched to get to Toledo by the end of Tuesday.

It was 163 miles to St. Louis, which we passed through around 1 p.m.; then 242 miles to Indianapolis, at about 6 p.m. Another similar chunk of miles to Toledo, where we finally arrived at our StudioPlus corporate apartment at midnight.

As I read back over this entry, it is interesting to note that we often stopped after driving for 250 miles at a stretch, which roughly corresponds to the Scion's gas capacity (usually get 300 miles to the 10-gallon tank). We're thankful that our car gets reasonably good mileage for a "non-hybrid".

For future reference, laughs and/or sobs: gas averaged about $2.46/gallon on this trip. The total journey from Bisbee to Toledo was nearly two thousand miles.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was almost completely exhausted for my first day back at work with "The Phantom of the Opera" on Wednesday, January 3rd, but I somehow survived.

It's taken nearly a week to regain some semblance of "normalcy" (thanks, Warren G. Harding, for that word!) after this unusually stressful, long trip. But James and I are both glad that our next stop, Des Moines, is "only" 550 miles from Maumee, Ohio, which will take place in three weeks.

By the way, here's Another pic of our Bisbee House

It always amazes me how there are new pictures of our place posted by strangers on the Internet almost on a daily basis. But I suppose that judging from James' imaginative, fun and funky decor on the outside of what would be an otherwise ugly building, it shouldn't be such a surprise after all!

It's become a very popular Bisbee tourist attraction. Maybe we should put out a donation box! ;-)