2000 Frank Funaro

So, I finish up these Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven dates on the west coast, the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, to be precise. And after an evening of singing and playing and drinking and blathering in the dressing room to total strangers and smoking a big fat stinking cigar, I wake up in the morning with my mouth tasting like the Third Army just marched thru it, my throat burning like Carrie White's prom, and my head pounding like a Nine Inch Nails concert in a tin aircraft hangar.

With seconds to spare, I gather up my stuff and fling it in the back of the van, and we head off to drop assorted bandmembers at airports and bus stations and what-have-you. And that leaves me and my manager, Jackson. We get some bad coffee and head off to the Avis rent-a-car counter to get me a car. You see, dear readers, in my infinite wisdom, somewhere along the way I decided that a nice lesiurely drive to Reno to pick up where I left off with Glass Ear would be the right thing to do. After consulting an atlas, I realize that it would only be 191 miles (307 km) as the crow flies, not that I had any intention of leaving the ground, and flying sucks anyway these days, what with delays, bad food, and metal fatigue.

I had originally tried to get a train from San Francisco to Reno, but we tried to book it too late, and all they could offer me was a train ride to Sacramento, followed by a lengthy bus ride to Reno. I am, as my friends know, a bit of a train lover, and the ride would have been scenic and relaxificating, but there was no way I was doing any part of this trip on a bus. Bus travel and root canal have so much in common, just looking at the Greyhound logo gives me an abcess...

So, here I am at the Avis rental counter. Now, I realize right from the git that as I get close to the California / Nevada border, I am going to have to traverse the infamous "Donner Pass", and on top of all that, it's raining like cats and more cats, I mean REALLY pouring, and all that precipitation is headed for the Sierra Nevadas, where it will transform itself into a blizzard quicker than you can click your heels together and say "There's no   place like home..." And then there's the ominous Donner pass, which I imagine will be scary, snowbound, and deserted, and perhaps I may have to eat my own foot while waiting for the spring thaw if something goes wrong with the car. Here I am ordering a Pontiac Grand Am, and then I see this sign like a heavenly light over the shoulder of the counter guy: "RENT A CELL PHONE HERE!"

My mind quickly paints a picture: I am upside down in a ditch 50 yards off the road, completely out of vision of the highway, well out of sight of the cars that pass, one every two hours. Having slid off the road, I am dangling upside-down from my seatbelt, shaken but not stirred, and I realize I could easily spend a couple of weeks right there. (I make a mental note to buy a dozen Snickers bars...) But then, I remember: I rented a cell phone. My paranoia has finally paid off! I AM A GENIUS!!! I root around for the infernal device as my tires finally stop spinning. I dial 911. "Where are you?" they ask. Proud of my powers of observation in an unfolding crisis, I tell them which mile marker almost skewered my head, lancing thru the drivers side window as I flew backwards in the cold mountain air...

"SIR!"   the counter person snaps my reverie.
"Um... Sorry, what did you say?"
"I said, would you like to rent the cell phone?"
"Uh... Yes!", I answer, coming back to earth. As it turns out, it only costs $5.99 a day, but the $18.50 per half minute outgoing call charge makes it prohibitive for all but emergency usage. That's ok, I just want to live to see another few sunrises, not chit chat with phone sex operators.

As it turns out, they hand me the keys to a '99 Cadillac Deville, for the Grand Am price. I am not arguing. I would have liked to think it was out of concern for my safety and well being that the nice people at Avis put me in this champagne-colored Noahs ark of a vehicle, but I know better. Especially when I spy the Nevada plate firmly affixed to the back of the car. Go ahead, use me to transport your boat back to its home port, I don't care. I shoulda rented a subcompact, had I known they were going to give me a free prodigal son upgrade. I mean, what does one of those little rolling coffins cost to rent, like, $8 a day? Anyway, I digress...

So, now I have myself a big old car, and a cell phone, and David has lent me a handheld CB radio, so I'm feeling like my ass is covered, and I'm almost ready to roll. Jackson and I were going to grab some lunch and whatnot, but the sky is hemmorhaging great buckets of water, and the weather forecast is for oceans more, to continue on into the next day, so I figure, hell, I'd better get on my pony and ride, coz I don't want to get snowed out of entering Reno that evening. And I don't want to have to eat my own foot.

"Just one thing", Jackson opines. "You will probably hit chain control in the mountains". Now, I am from the east coast, and have seen many a snowstorm, ice storm, hell, I even saw it rain frogs once. (Well, to be perfectly fair, that was probably more pharmacological than meteorological, but that, as they say, is another story... ) So, to de-digress, as an east-coaster, I've been privy to all kinds of horrible, rotten weather conditions, and I've certainly done me some travelling, but I had never, to that moment, heard of anything called "chain control". Well, as it turns out, these mountain roads can get pretty hairy, so the local highway departments apparently require you to have tire chains on your car or truck, or they turn you back, where you can wait out the storm in some cheesy motel with no HBO and that horrible hard water that you can't seem to get soap off with.

So, we search for an auto parts store, which takes awhile, seeing as to how nobody could possibly have a need for auto parts on a Sunday, and besides, there's probably some arcane blue-law from the 1800's that says "thou shalt do no tool wielding in San Francisco on the holy day", and just never you mind the pun clusters, unintended or otherwise.

Finally, we find an open chain store (the puns just keep coming, folks), and by now the rains are coming in good and hard, and I am slightly worried, so I bid farewell to both my manager and San Francisco, and, with chains procured, but absolutely no knowledge of how to put them on, I sally forth. The highway out of the city is jammed, and so, we all crawl out of town, which is just as well, because the rain is teeming down so hard that I can barely see the bumper of the car in front of me.

By the time we get onto the Bay Bridge, (which I vividly remember from earthquake news footage of some hapless driver dissappearing into a very large gap in the roadway that did not exist just 20 seconds before), I am gripping the steering wheel in white-knuckle fashion, trying desperately to see anything for the fog and the rain. The bumper to bumper journey across the span takes about 10 minutes, and, once I hit terra firma again, I find myself on the I-80 East, amidst maniacs that either have far better vision than me, or some sort of a death wish. I can only assume they are locals, used to driving in this sort of low visibility, because many of them seem to be going 80 mph, and I can barely see 10 feet in front of the hood of my car. Yeah, and I've seen those 97 car pile-ups on CNN.

Day turns to night, and visibility goes from 6 feet down to 3 feet, and still the mad parade of hydroplaning lunatics appear fast in my rearview mirror and whoosh by me like stunt drivers out of Mad Max, their tail lights lingering for scant seconds, only to dissappear into the soup. I'm thinking to myself, "Am I really THAT old? Have I actually become one of the vehicularly-challenged idiots I fervently wished license revocation upon mere months ago?" I'm leaned way up in my seat like an octegenarian, squinting and straining to see the lane markings, lest I be headed off into the weeds, which, for all I knew, at any given moment I was. I drove several hours half expecting to suddenly have a picnic area materialize in front of me or slam into a cow or something.

I make two brief stops along the way to pee and regain the equilibrium lost when driving hours at a time in semi-coiled terror. Ok, ok, I exagerate, but I will tell you this: I was allowing myself to be lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle rocking motion of my rented cruise-ship of a car, but, at 65 mph, with roughly 30 feet of visibility to work with, there was still a little voice in the back of my head screaming, "Hey! By the time you see that stopped tractor trailer in the middle of the highway, you will not only be able to taste the paint off its rear door right thru your airbag, but you will be able to tell the EMTs what the truck is hauling, because you will have tasted every last pallet."

So, the choice was mine, hold my speed and trust in a higher power to keep the Red Sea parted (and devoid of stopped trucks, cows and picnic tables, which, by the way were all conveniently left out of the Bible, for reasons yet unknown to serious theologians everywhere...), or slow down to a speed at which I could actually benefit from the anti-lock brakes so considerately supplied to me in my rental agreement at no extra charge, although, with the latter choice, I ran the risk of having my temperature taken rectally by the thermostat on the radiator of the car behind me in the event the driver of said car was actually experiencing the same weather as me, or had never read the Bible.

I have no desire to be car #1 in a 97 car pile-up, our vehicles crazily scattered about the highway like words in a run-on sentence, (and please, tell me this keyboard can't run out of commas, I do believe I have exceeded my quota), and so, against all the instincts riled up by the meager input my long-suffering eyes were supplying my brain, I decided to damn the proverbial torpedoes, and hold my speed steady at 65 or so. People were still flying past me like I was standing still, but I don't want   to do cargo inventory by flavor, so they can all go screw themselves good and hard. Oh, and by the way, that neglected little stick coming out the left side of your steering columns? THAT'S CALLED A DIRECTIONAL SIGNAL, YOU MORONS!!!

By the time I started up into the mountains, roughly 150 miles into my trip, the 3 cups of black coffee I had consumed along the way had blended rather nicely with 2 Snickers bars to produce a nice trembling kind of buzz. I looked over at the passenger side floorboards, where my first ever set of tire chains sat in their plastic box, silently daring me to open them and learn their heretofore undiscovered mysteries. My thoughts turned to the learning curve ahead. Would I be able to figure this out on my own? Of course, I assured myself. I would read the manual thoroughly, more than once if necessary, before I even stepped foot out of the car. And, when, I asked myself, would the moment be right for putting them on? I started to notice chain contol signs, complete with blinking lights to call attention to the frequency of the AM radio station that you needed to listen to for chain info.

I turned the radio on and found the station. A monotone voice fought to be heard thru the static. Near as I could tell, it was saying something about not needing chains in Emigrant Gap. Aha! I thought, I may not actually have to use these things!   I could return them for a refund... I won't even have to get out of the car in this teeming rain! But I was still climbing, and the precip was starting to turn to slush on the road.

It was then I noticed the bumper to bumper procession of cars and trucks coming the opposite way, and I quickly realized that this was the end result of the bottleneck caused by Donner Pass, and these lucky souls had already conquered the summit and were headed back down. At least, I reasoned, the pass was passable, and, seeing as how the slush cover kept deepening, my instinct to get on the road immediately had been sound. I was going to make it to Reno this evening for certain. I wouldn't be spending the night at the Overlook Hotel with Jack Torrence and his hapless family after all. This was a load off my slumping shoulders, and it brightened my attitude considerably. I drove along for another few miles before I clicked the radio back on, just in time to hear the words I was dreading:

"Donner Pass is now under chain control. You must have tire chains in order to go any further. Any car or truck not having chains installed will be turned back. When you see the tire chain inspection point, you will be able to pull off the road, where you can install your chains. Please pull fully onto the shoulder, a safe distance from the road before you proceed to get soaking wet and totally frustrated..."

I was suddenly alone on this particular stretch of highway leading to the Pass, the undulations and varying ascents and descents of the road having sorted and spread us all out, and my fellow travellers were nowhere to be seen, which was kind of spooky. I turned the radio down, but not off, and the endless loop repeatedly played itself out like a mantra. I took a perverse comfort in hearing it again and again, perhaps being soothed in the knowledge that everything had been thought of out here in this God forsaken alien landscape. The droning voice on the radio never changed. It began to help me focus.

I started to feel strong, and in control of my own destiny. The long line of headlights coming in my direction attested to the indomitable spirit of the human will... I was beginning to feel like a character in a Frank Capra movie... Here was the turning point, the part of the film where our put-upon protagonist rises from the ashes of his mixed metaphors to grab assorted bulls by their various horns, by hook or by crook. I began to surge with confidence. I would learn how to put those chains on, I tell you! No one is going to stop me! Not a little weather, not my utter lack of experience installing chains, NOTHING!   NOBODY WAS GOING TO HAVE TO RESORT TO EATING HUMAN BODY PARTS, DO YOU HEAR ME?! NOT THIS NIGHT! NOT EVER!!!

I crest a hill and turn a corner, and all of a sudden, there I am, thrust into the center of HELL. On the side of the road are dozens and dozens of stopped cars and trucks, other cars and trucks jockeying around them for spots to pull off into, people squatting down in the pouring rain, struggling chains into place, the sounds of yelling, honking, chaos, babies squalling, bedlam, blinkers and brakelights turning the fog and rain an evil red, a soccer riot run riot with hooligans, Dante's Inferno and a Hieronymous Bosch painting all rolled into one like deja vu all over again and cats and dogs together; pandemonium; MADNESS!!! And calmly circulating through the maelstrom like Satans own cocktail party waitstaff are these guys in oversized yellow slickers with the words CHAIN INSTALLER in huge letters on the back, and they're mingling thru the minefield, some of them installing, some checking chains already installed by do-it-yourselfers, and they're waving people here and there, and yelling, " 'mon back, 'mon back... STOP!!!", and did I say it was POURING?

It all comes to me in a rush... I'm not alone in this time of trial and tribulation, I am one with the rabble. I find a suitable place to pull off, put my emergency flashers on, and reach over for the box. I open the box. I peer inside. The rolled up chains look nothing like I expect them to, which, come to think of it is totally correct, considering the fact I have laid neither eyes nor hands on anything even resembling   this twisted mass of metal in my life. I dig to the bottom of the box for the instructions. Just then, I am peripherally aware of an entity over my shoulder. Through the fogged up window I see one of these slickered chain installers, and to my eyes, with the peasoup fog and the red lights flashing all around, he looks like a traffic cop at the Rapture. I roll down my window. "Need help installing chains?", he yells in my face, at a volume usually used to summon someone across a large parking lot, the same volume apparently needed when using a cell phone in a crowded restaurant...

Well, by my reckoning, I have just entered the ring of fire of my own accord, and, if you remember, I am Jimmy Stewart on the verge of my filibuster in "Mister Smith Goes to Washington", I am master of my own destiny, I mean to say, I am a self-sufficient MAN, do you hear me? A MAN!!! I need no help! I spit   on your help! Of course, I don't actually say this to the guy, as my judicious non-usage of quote marks ought to indicate to those savvy with punctuation. What I did say was something like, "...um, I'm going to try to do this myself, thanks..." Unquote.

With a dismissive grunt, the chain gnome was on his way, and I put the window up, noting that, in the short time it took to hold these intellectual aerobics with him, I had thoroughly soaked the inside of the car. This wasn't going to be pretty. Did I say it was POURING? So, I unfold the instructions, which make the impending operation seem easy, but I know better, having struggled with Pandoras Cartridge in the past (see: Faucetry...), and so I read them a second time, then a third, and then I grab the actual chains out of the box. I figure, hey, what with the fact that it's POURING outside, I may as well get them all uncoiled and ready to go... After all, the infantry doesn't head into the firefight with their rifles in FedEx boxes, football players don't pull their pads on when the quarterback yells "HUT!", and flight attendants don't wait until the plane hits heavy turbulence to start serving hot coffee, so... er... skip that last one, you know what I'm trying to say. The less time spent in teeming tumult, the better.

After a brief struggle, I have the whole metallic mess unfurled, and I zip up my leather jacket, pull a wool hat down over my (electively) bald head, and leap to the fray. I am soaked by the time I reach the front of the car (it is   a Caddy, after all...) and I survey the situation. Looks pretty easy. I point the hooks that hold the entire shebang on the tires in the correct direction; anything less could damage them. A flat, I don't want. I drape the chains on the front tires, hey, this is easy... I snug the first link of the chain up under each tire, get into the car, and back up a few inches, as per instructions... My confidence building, (not actually "jaunty", or "cocky" as yet...) I start to hook the hooks on the passenger side tire, first the outside, and then, grappling around inside the wheelwell, I try to make contact with the dangling pin end, fishing around without actual visual cues, to little effect. (Small seepage of aplomb) "Hey!", I hear behind me. I turn to see an off-duty chain jockey relaxing in his unmarked van reading the March issue of "Plumpers" magazine. "It's easier if you turn the wheel", he says, matter-o-factly. I strain to hear condescension in his voice, but there is none. "Thanks", I say, hoping my tenacity in this whole ordeal precludes snickering when his window is rolled back up.

Another one of those little things you learn either the hard way, or have handed down like folk wisdom or pattern-baldness. Ok, I'm still progressing quite well for a guy who hasn't a clue what he is doing... I'll certainly use this little piece of information. I reach into the car and swing the wheel towards the shoulder, suddenly making the little doohickey that goes into the hook approximately 1000 times easier to grab, although that is just an estimate. I slip the hook effortlessly over its pin. I step back to admire my work, secure in the further mathematical knowledge that I am 50% done with this project. Everything seems right with the world thus far. I walk calmly over to the drivers side with the gait of an old pro, just puttin' my chains on here, no problem. This time, I turn the wheels first, so as to lash up the inside hook with ease. The power steering box whines faintly as I swing the steering wheel over, then I am closing the door with a cavalier flip of the hand, walking back to finish this petty little task. I feel like I am in the eye of a hurricane; an almost holy silence envelopes me as the storm lashes around my protected cocoon of peace and competence. I am graduating into a new realm, transcending insignificant impediment, finding yet another way to conquer the elements, another way to say, "Look, you big bad world... Bring it on. I gotcher elements RIGHT HERE!"   It is a zen moment, as I hook the inside link together, all fluidity and grace now... I may even have been whistling at the time, I don't remember. I'm practically eating dinner in Reno at this point. With all the wisdom of a wizened chain sage, I bend down, pick up the one remaining hook in readiness to couple it to its mate, and...


Bink? The carefree smile has not yet left my face. I look at my right hand. In it, between my thumb and forefinger is... the hook. The business end of the chain falls away and flops flaccidly, uselessly, confusingly on the tire. My eyes go to it, then back to my hand. My smile starts to fade. "Bink???" Realization dawns slowly, like the delayed onset of shock that accompanies a serious salad-prep accident involving one's favorite knife. I feel a tiny seismic shift under my house of cards, a sudden dearth of wind in my main sail. I pick up the frayed cable-end, the part of the chain that is supposed to be crimped firmly within the sleeve end of the hook. My eyes go searchingly back and forth... frayed end... hook... frayed end... hook, as if to mind-meld the thing back together, or perhaps to go back in history to a more carefree time, let's say, oh... 30 seconds ago? But deep inside, just as sure as death, taxes, and a good bitch slapping on the Jerry Springer Show, deep down I know. I am sunk.

The chaotic sights and sounds of purgatory start to seep back into my consciousness. The satanic red lights are still blinking, the yellow troll patrol is still waving cars and trucks this way and that, hell is still very much in session. I slowly turn, my eyes a-glaze, and somnambulate, as if on rails, back over to the off-duty chain guy and his van. He is done with "Plumpers" now, and is casually smoking a non-filtered cigarette, watching the circus. He sees me approach, and rolls down his window. I speak first.

"...Er... do you know anything about this?  " I hold up the severed hook. He ponders it for a second. "Wow", he says, genuinely surprised. "Never saw that   happen before!"

Allow me to pause at this point to explain just how proud I am that I did not snap and turn into a drooling idiot at that exact split-second. I like to think that, all things being equal, any lesser man would have lost every one of his marbles right then and there upon hearing those words in that very circumstance. I think perhaps, that if ever there was a tailor-made test of ones mettle under duress, a specific cosmic experiment deviously designed to seperate the men from the postal employees, well, folks, then that was my shining moment. I have no idea what the sublimation of such seething rage does to the human body's aging process; I will have to let you know in twenty years or so. But I will surely celebrate my mastery of that particular split-second unto my very deathbed. There are defining moments in any man's life, and I would like to propose here and now, that a man is only as strong as his reaction to total, abject frustration. (Or his ability to resist the temptation to call attention to the very bad pun found in this paragraph...)

Hell, I didn't cry one tear. I headed straight to one of the chain installers, tapped him on the shoulder, and thrust the useless piece of metal in his face. He looked at it, and began to speak..."Wow, I never..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know", I interrupted. "You never saw that   happen before. How much you get for puttin' chains on?"
His gaze went from the useless little piece of hardware to my face, our eyes locking.
"Seventy dollars", he said, and paused just a minute fraction of a second.

Quickly resigning myself to my circumstance, devoid of emotion, I pulled out my wallet and handed over four twenties, which became disgustingly soaked the minute I pulled them out. He fumbled reluctantly for change. "You get to keep all that money, or do you have to turn part of it in to the highway department?" I asked.
He looked at me evenly. "We get to keep it all."
He handed back a vile wad of wet singles.
"So, then", I began, none too pleased with the gouging I was sustaining, "That means you won't mind if I don't tip you, right?", I queried, daring him to take pride in this sanctioned version of highway robbery. But, the man was hardcore. He wasn't buying any of my shenanigans. And he certainly wasn't going to fall for my guilt trip one little bit. It was a seller's market up here in hell, all 7239 feet of it, and he knew it. The only thing missing was the pitchfork.

"Well", he said, smashing the feeble lob back at me like John McEnroe, "I do   have my expenses."
"Yeah, I know... Plumpers just went up", I mumbled as I handed him back a soggy five dollars.
"Sorry?", he said, cupping his ear.
"Oh, nothing", I said, turning on my heel and making a beeline for the comfort of the car. I opened the door, tossed the useless 30 dollar chains on the floor in the back, stripped off my sodden coat and hat, and collapsed into the soaked leather drivers seat.

I watched as he deftly made the quickest 75 bucks I've ever seen made, minus the cost of the chains, of course, which were probably bought in bulk and cost him a measly 10 dollars. When he was finished, he dissappeared into the crimson fog to offer his services to some other fortunate motorist, and I pulled back out onto the roadway. The slush got deeper and more slippery as I resumed full alert mode, and I watched in awe as the fearless stunt-driving resumed in earnest. You haven't lived til you've seen a guy towing a camper fly by you on a treacherous, slush-covered Donner Pass at 85 miles per. For the most part, though, people felt the gravity of the situation, and drove at the posted 35 mph. It was kind of tricky. I felt my boat going sideways more than once, and saw several people save their own hides, recovering nicely from what I thought to be sure trips to the hospital. After we crested the mountain, gingerly wending our way down the other side in low gear, I felt that feeling of cameraderie with my fellow sufferers once more, except for the IDIOT who insisted on tailgating me all the way down, may he rot in hell, or at least be forced to take a job at the Price Club.

After a short amount of time driving on eggshells, I see a sign that says "END OF CHAIN CONTROL" at about the same time as I see the long line of people pulled onto the shoulder, removing their cursed chains. There are only a couple of slicker-wearing, Plumper-reading, money-gouging chain geniuses on this side of the pass, and they're wearing large signs that read, "CHAIN REMOVAL $10", and I'll be damned if I'm going to pay this hyena pack one more red cent, so I pull over and yank my soggy jacket and hat back on, and now I am truly miserable. And, of course, the damn things have tightened up on the wheels somehow, and I can't seem to get the inside hook of the passenger side off, so I get back in the car and roll forward a little, the damn thing flapping from one hook, which is lunacy, because no sooner do I get back out there and look at my handiwork, than I realize that the whole magilla is getting well and truly wrapped around the axle, and did I mention it was still POURING?

Add to this the joy of squatting ankle deep (in sneakers) in the raging river of freezing rainwater that is gushing down the road on the passenger side, and the fact that a goodly percentage of my fellow sufferers don't seem to give a damn about taking their chains off, and are whizzing past my parked car at terrifying velocity, splashing me with sandy slush, and I am starting to reconsider my tenuous composure, and that job at the post office as well. Just when a tantrum seems imminent, the well-constructed and stubborn 75 dollar hook comes loose.

And that, my friends, was that. The rest of the ride was uneventful in the extreme. I got to Reno at about 10 pm; the trip from San Francisco having taken about 6 hours, probably double what it would have taken had the weather been on my side. I kept scanning the paper for reports of Greyhound buses having plunged down ravines, looking for the karmic justification of having rented a car in the first place. And, the day after   I delivered the vehicle to the Reno airport Avis counter, I awoke to see the damn cell phone staring me in my forgetful face, and so I had to go all the way back to the airport again, (and God knows I love airports like I love diarreah). But hey, I really ought not complain.

I still have my foot, right?