The Car on Christmas

The steering wheel tightened up without warning. The dashboard lit up like a tree as I pulled into a parking space at the Chevron. My wife asked , “What’s wrong?” I don’t remember answering, just hitting the button that pops the hood, taking off my jacket and tie, and stepping out into the rain. She went back to reading her magazine and passing dropped crayons to the kids.

Under the hood things looked and sounded normal. I looked around for leaks, smoke, anything, then I saw the auxiliary belt was slack and stationary. I looked closer and saw a plastic round something just sitting there, underneath everything, on top of the wheel well. I hollered for the Mrs. to shut the engine off as I rolled up my sleeve and plunged my arm into the greasy mess.

As I was blindly fishing for that plastic round thing, a very black man wearing two coats, one beanie, and no teeth asked what was wrong with the car. I answered I was a bit unsure but think the broken part was just under here, barely out of reach. He waved me aside and tried his double coated arm. He couldn’t reach either. He told me he lived across the street and thought he had a hangar over there. I watched as he trotted off toward an abandoned tire shop and vacant lot.

“Mind if I try?” an Indian man asked as he flicked a cigarette butt onto the sidewalk. He had a long handled grabber thing, the kind with a claw, a trigger, and no name that I know of. He took his turn reaching for the plastic thing. As I stood back feeling lame, watching another make attempts where I had failed, I tried to at least be cordial. “What a way to spend Christmas right?” “Got it!” he responded as he held up a black plastic doughnut shaped something. I inspected the burnt piece of engine and saw the two coated man approaching. He saw the part in my hand and tossed the hangar over his shoulder onto the ground. “Let us be looking to see if the part store is open.” the victor said waving me toward his Lexus. I waived to the wife as she locked the doors and the kids kept coloring.

I felt less sympathy for this Samaritan, who I now guessed owned the Chevron, as I pulled shut the car door and looked at a multi-armed Goddess mounted on the dash. I wondered to myself if you would pay yourself time and a half for working on Christmas, if you didn’t celebrate Christmas. I didn’t think the part store would be open, it wasn’t, but he said he didn’t care if we left the car overnight. I called my nephew, the one who just graduated college last week, and he picked us up in his brand new Dodge Charger. Its so new it doesn’t have plates yet.

The day after Christmas the rain had stopped and a mechanic met me at the car. I borrowed an in-law’s car, thinking this could take a while. I planned to drive the forty five minutes back up and make plans to reclaim my hopefully repaired car while the mechanic was working, to ya-know, waste my time but not everyone else’s back at the house. The mechanic didn’t say much at all and just dove into the engine. He made a silent trip back to his truck, came back with a wrench, and went back in. I awkwardly interrupted to ask, how long and how much. He kind of squinted at me, scratched his cheek, and said, “Bout thirty minutes and forty bucks.” Surprised at the time and happy with the price I stepped back and watched.

As I stood back, another Indian man came out of the gas station and stood next to me. He asked if it was getting fixed, I said it was, then he spit his tobacco on the curb and said, “Now there will be the issue of paying.” I had contemplated tipping the generous man who helped me yesterday, but I began reconsidering as I looked at this guy with horrible teeth, a visible hairy chest, who was wagging his head back and forth like a bobble head. “Pardon?” I asked playing dumb. “How much do you suppose it would cost if I had called a tow truck?” he asked with half closed, glossy eyes. “I’m not sure. Why don’t you just tell me how much you are asking for,” I answered.

“It would have been very expensive. They charge to pick up, then to get it back. I am saying only fifty dollars.”

I was not pleased. I tried to show it on my face.

“So what do you think of that? He stated more than asked.

“I think it incredibly un-generous and think this would have been a great conversation to have had yesterday. I understand you did me a favor but to ask that much for something that cost you nothing… I just don’t know.”

He looked at me with his glassy eyes and said, “No! There is no negotiating here, there is no haggling. I have said fifty and so it will be fifty. So, eh!? What you think? Eh!?”

I stood staring deeply at his wood grained brown stained teeth, knowing there was a twenty in my pocket, but not knowing entirely how to keep it and still feel good about myself. What do I say here?

I never had to decide as he started laughing, hit me on the arm and told me he was joking. I told him it was surely funnier for him than for me and he just looked at me doing that head wobble thing.

I thanked the mechanic, called my wife to come so we could drive the car back, then I sat in the car to wait.

Usually I see the view from inside the car like a movie; I sit while scenes play across the windshield. Occasionally I even have snacks. This time, in this lot, it was more like a fishbowl, and I was the fish.

I could not figure out why people, scruffy people, were just milling about around the car. I contemplated taking a picture but decided not too. I realized these folks were standing around outside the car because I was almost right in front of a liquor store. I did not know if they had homes or what hard lives they were living, and to take their photo from my warm and cozy car, waiting to go home and have a well cooked meal, seamed more than patronizing and I was ashamed for having considered it. That is till the buzzards circling the vehicle began to get overly nosy. To lean against the car while I was in it is one thing, but to stand and stare at me, face to face, and then just continue to stare? I raised my iphone and “click”.

They were unfazed.

I was a bit fazed. Not to by the the folks waiting for the Package Store to open, but by the lady walking the block. I have seen enough women walk the block to know what that looks like, but till this day I had never seen a chunky “lady” walk the block while eating a bag of Funions. I realized then more than ever, that that is an industry I truly do not understand. Attractiveness is surely not a component.

She was still walking when my wife arrived.

As we were driving off toward the highway I looked over, behind the abandoned tire shop. There, in a field was two coated guy with a few others standing around a flaming trash can. My wife called me from the other car, “Hey did you see that? He really does live over there.”

A Christmas Story

I am no Ebeneezer Scrooge, but on this Christmas Eve I find myself haunted by his ghosts.

Christmas past is all around me. I write this morning surrounded by houses with driveways and garages, covered in vinyl siding. I’ve pulled up a plastic chair on the front porch, a porch which no one here uses for sitting, and as birds chirp I look at house after house, shiny cars in driveways, and I know a strip mall is just around that corner. This is not the place I grew up but without looking at the plates on cars I would never know it. It could be California, or even Iowa, but it isn’t, it’s Atlanta. It has all the trappings of my youth minus the snow.

My brother and Granddad.

I drove down into the city the other day and visited my not as distant past. I ate at a diner in the West End where white people are rarely seen and the days of my missionary service came quickly back to mind. They have cleaned up the area, a whole housing project I used to haunt is gone, replaced by new student housing. I’m sure there is some symbolism or irony there but the idea is muddled and not my point. It was rainy so I was happy to not be riding a bike as I was during those Christmases.

My car is not in the driveway. It is with my wife who is at the mall picking up some last minute things for our Christmas present. The four year old is inside drawing a picture for Santa. The seven year old who has already heard the bad news, is playing along with the Santa fantasy on behalf of her little sister so well that I think she has re convinced herself that he is real. Right now I know of Tiny Tims up in Philly. They are maybe cold and humble in a row house with no turkey, the specter has shown them to me. Some little help may be on its way, but it isn’t me. I am with the ghost just watching things, sitting on the porch, typing.

I’m ignoring the bony hand of Christmas to come the best I can. I have had some recent conversations with him but they never have answers, they remain open ended. I asked to see my report card, or maybe what I’ll be doing next year, or maybe ten Christmases from now, but no. Instead he showed me Karaoke at J. R. Crickets.

The wife and I sat last night in a suburban restaurant full of middle class Black people. I wondered where or when this will happen where I live. We watched an attractive young woman stand up and comfortably have no rhythm and sing horribly. It made me wonder about my daughters in their decades to come and whether or not they will have rhythm or be comfortable. Even now as I listen to the lack of sirens or look at a street without shopping cart guy passing by, I wonder if a lawn is in my future. Scrooge was shown a lonely grave, if I am shown a lawnmower I would consider it just as horrible.

But the ghost refuses me a vision, and I assume because that tale is fiction, and my story hasn’t yet been written, I won’t be getting one. Its just as well, because I’ve seen that play and read that book and know the moral already. The Mrs. will return with a Christmas goose or whatever the modern suburban equivalent is, I am prepared to yell “what day is it?” from my window tomorrow when I wake up, though sadly I am in suburbia so this question will likely be directed to a squirrel. I will do my best to have Christmas cheer in my heart and then share it with others all around. I’ll give Bob Kratchet a raise, and I’ll do my homework next semester. I’ll take pictures of the kids unwrapping presents and enjoy my mother in law’s collard greens. Again, I’ve read the story and I got the point a long time ago.

I endorse the ending, “God bless us, every one!” and I pass that on to all of you… along with the better Christmas message of, “you’ll shoot your eye out.”

Happy holidays everyone.

One Semester Down, but Not Out

I read a lot of books and articles.  This is one semester of grad school.

I expected the workload to be heavy, but I did not expect this. I should have photographed the Dr. Seuss I supplemented this with at home, or perhaps the discussion group my seven year held around the table and in the car regarding her having read Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. She is also looking forward to holding me accountable for my report card. Aaaah karma.

Now maybe I am just old, strike that, I am old, and because of this I expected all the above but I did not foresee the below.

I swear they are just kids... no I'm just old.

No, its not that I failed to foresee classmates, but rather having a cohort of cool people I actually like. I normally have no problem liking people, in fact I’m quite good at liking people, but this was sort of ridiculous. Now forgive my cheese, after all I attended three functions this last week that included brie, but dog-gone-it, the admissions people at this place picked some fine folks.

I did not move here for school, I have a home, I have a life that pre-dates my cohort. I don’t need them, still I like them. I recall that guy in undergrad, the one you look at and wonder, “how did he get here?” I have looked and he is not here. She isn’t here either. Now that is not to say everyone is normal, need I remind you of the elf guy from a previous post?

I pulled out my calendar and crossed off the last day of the semester. I’m done. My program only has one more and I’m knocking on my wooden desk right now, but after all the stress, all the work, all the chaos of jumbled schedules, I’m still enjoying this.

And even better than a dancing elf in class… Claire’s reaction.

A Bit of What I Have Been Writing in Place of this Blog

Thelin Precis part 1

It is likely that no institution(s), other than government, has had a greater and deeper effect on the citizens of the United States than colleges and Universities. Perhaps it is because these organizations and institutions proudly predate our current government. In his book A History of American Higher Education, John R. Thelin attempts to chronicle how these institutions, or higher education as an industry, grew in prominence, and evolved in concept and practice through time. This cross cut of time, or “horizontal history” as he calls it, is intended to give the reader a broader and deeper understanding of any given institution’s singular history, while illustrating its place and relevance in the bigger picture or context of any given period. He proposes to challenge the traditional ideas of the American college narrative by presenting facts and figures from multiple sources on a single subject, as well as stories and examples from the lives of individual players, all with the hope that challenged notions and expanded visions will inspire increased interest and investigation. Perhaps his endeavor can be deemed a success in that the spanning overview does bring up more questions than it offers answers.

One prevailing theme, that begs additional questioning is the idea that college enrolment, as well as course offerings, were a response to market forces. Thelin presents his history in chronological chunks, or eras, telling of how the concepts and philosophies changed over time, and then presents the affiliated enrolment numbers, and even budgets, right alongside, to better illustrate the potential reasons or results of evolving philosophies. This method of reporting is maintained from the founding of institutions, through transitional periods, usually the turning of  centuries or thrashings of war, and everyone, the colleges and the country, adjust together.

For example, the idea is forwarded that colonial colleges were primarily tools of socialization for the sons of the gentry, instructing them in the classics, a practice which possessed no practical value other than giving these young men the time and opportunity to broaden their horizons and shoulders with others of their own class. To help illustrate his point that academics were not the primary purpose of colleges, Thelin points out the lack of set admission standards, the general lack of standardized primary education institutions, and, in my opinion the most poignant point, the insight that no profession at the time required a degree. From this idea Thelin progresses to the expansion of colleges beyond the elite Northeast, into state funded schools, and the geographical spread into the South and Midwest. As all this happens, various schools shift ideas and new structures evolve (college vs. university), and as any good in the market, prices and demands of education shift in tune. I am sure Thelin’s facts are accurate, but the portrait painted is incomplete.

If a Bachelor of Arts, or even science, had no power in the market at large, then its value must come from somewhere else. That somewhere else is never identified. Higher education is treated as if it is its own marketplace, only being affected by the biggest and strongest outside forces (wars). For instance there is attention given to the rise of disciplines such as business and engineering into curriculums, while no real attention is given as to why. We are still told that as these disciplines rose, one still had no need of a degree to work professionally in those fields, and by following the numbers we can still see that only an elite few enrolled in college; why then the rise of those fields as areas of academic study? What was the value? If a degree in a practical field, had no practical value in that field, then why was it offered? It is impossible to know from the facts presented. Answers would require looking at context outside the text.

Also left untreated in the text is the market benefit of churches sponsoring schools. Thelin states that while Harvard may have begun with the idea, no matter how insincere, of schooling and preparing candidates for the ministry, as time progressed fewer and fewer graduate became ministers. This pattern of non ministering graduates was well in place when other denominations and locations began founding schools. Not only is the value of a degree for the degree holder left unstated, but the value to the founding denomination is left unstated as well. This same question could be asked of women seeking higher education or the institutions educating them. It would seem that the answers pertaining to value not only lay outside the text, but outside the cloistered college walls as well.

As Thelin wends his way towards the latter half of the 20th century, he continues his pattern of mapping out the education industry’s trajectory juxtaposed against an unstated opposition. We do not know what other forces are at play in the culture at large or what truly motivated the players chronicled. We simply have a chronicling of various schools, their evolution through time, their shifts in structure, and their individual spaces in the higher education picture. It is true the author makes no claim that the book is all encompassing, or that it stands as the definitive word on the subject. The book does however make the explicit claim that it intends to challenge traditionally held notions of history, though it does not state what those notions are, and forwards the hope that the reader will be inspired to investigate further. In this last case the book is a success. In A History of American Higher Education, one will find plenty of Harvard, Yale, and even Transylvania, but not quite enough America.

Penn’s Unexpected

There are some things you don’t necessarily expect to see on campus. such as…

Breakdancing. Kinda looks like he just fell, but he was in fact dancing.
A large group of Asian school girls.
A hawk and a squirrel sharing a branch. No really, this was right over the main walk.
Ben Franklin getting a credit card.
the Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
An elf twirling candy canes in class.

Then there are some things you absolutely expect to see on campus. Such as…

History professors in tweed with elbow patches.
Some kid playing the violin.
A limo waiting outside of Wharton.
Free massages in the student lounge.

That is the joy of school, or at least it is school. That wonderful mix of “I’m paying for this?” and “I’m paying for this!” Either way, I’m surely learning something.

Tweed and tie + elf = college.