by Raju Peddada
To my magnificent mother -- who, even at 76 and hobbling, keeps us always fueled up
[Preface: If the highways represent life and time, then we are the tires with fixed miles, and every trip becomes a milestone. Destination exits signify arrival -- relief from many things: concentrated driving, daydreams of revenge against ex-wives or sexual fantasies with new ones, and respite from being pounded by the sun or slipping on ice patches, and of course, the fast food. Then there is the elation, with the expectation of real food and fun, and that we could finally relieve ourselves from constipation. My brother had migrated to Canada on March 15, 1995, the day Michael Jordan announced his comeback. That was the day when I drove him across the U.S./Canada border, at Detroit, as a landed immigrant. It was joy on two fronts. In May of that same year, his family went to join him. In the summer of '95 my brother moved to Waterloo after a landing a job there, and it was there that they sunk their roots -- hence began our saga of annual summer sojourns to Canada. To get to their house, we always took I-90/94 East to Detroit, and 401 East from Windsor, exiting at 278B for Kitchener-Waterloo.]
(Swans - August 12, 2013) "Goodbye... 278B" my mother muttered wistfully in her shaky voice, as she turned her glassy eyes towards the streaking exit sign and countryside. My father and mother were middle-aged in 1995 when they started their annual migration north every summer to the Kitchener-Waterloo region to visit their younger son and his family for a month or two, and exit 278B had become their relief valve. So were these exits for me: 441P to Menasha, and 131 onto Wineconnie Avenue into Neenah, Wisconsin, from 1991 through 2005, when I traveled to a whole different sphere of beautiful people to visit my daughter Lizzy, who lived with her mother and older sister. If I had to abstract these trips as a writer, it would be like drawing a line with a fountain pen, and tripping up at the same spot every time, creating that indigo blot hole that became bigger whenever the nib hit the exit. Each trip was an event by itself -- a self-contained tale. And these tales are at the risk of becoming our myths -- I should share some experiences from our trips to Canada while they are still fresh.
1995-96: Once, due to the slick road conditions in winter, I took the train to Canada. It was convenient, and I could conduct my business on that chunky green Motorola cell phone (industry first) or read a book. The book I read was Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street.; I had written this on the title page: "The rich get richer by acting poor, and the poor get poorer by acting rich." At the conclusion of my stay, on the 25th of December, 1995, I boarded a train at the Waterloo station for Chicago. A bespectacled woman also boarded and sat next to me. Her destination was London, Ontario, the very next stop in fact, 96 kilometers away. We introduced ourselves -- Debi was a graduate in political science from the University of Canada at the London campus. From our conversation, I gathered that she was a communist, a beautiful communist nevertheless, and before she disembarked we exchanged phone numbers. By the spring of 1996, we regularly indulged in "mutual stimulation" over the phone.
Earlier that year, I had made a successful bid for a huge design project, whose purchase order (PO) was due the very day I had made a date with Debi to be at her London apartment for lunch. I had exited at 278B the day before for Waterloo, and after a day with my folks, I took the same exit onto 401W for London. My anxiety burgeoned; the receipt of the PO was essential, to not only consummate the business, but my date with Debi. And so it unfolded that my communist date would arrange for her capitalist date's PO to be delivered. She asked her neighbor, Mike, a real-estate friend upstairs, to receive my fax in his apartment.
This serendipitous script! While we were having a late lunch, I pursed my lips and looked up -- Debi blushed pink and bit her lower lip at the moaning and groaning upstairs. We could hear "Ooaannh, it feels so good... I want to have your..." She mutters, "Uh-oh, they're at it again." About 20 minutes later, there was this loud crash, followed by "we'll never finish anything we start... your fuckin business... go fuck your fax machine!" "Saraaah... Sarah pleease -- it's not my fuckin faaax." It was Mike's small fax/phone unit that Sarah threw against the wall with my PO half way through it. Two minutes later, the door slammed, and someone ran downstairs. About 15 minutes later, Mike knocks on Debi's door and presents her with half a fax, with the bottom half missing, in fact, the crucial part, with the purchasing manager's signature. I apologized profusely, as Debi joined in, "Sorry Mike -- she's an insatiable cunt... I'll talk to her." Silence, then giggles. Sarah was Debi's high school friend. I contemplated "no orgasm, no PO, poor me -- poor Mike, is that really fair? I had to reverse this! "No fuckin' PO, no orgasm, bitch!" Can any thing between a communist and a profiteer be consummated? Oops -- of course, the Chinese-American intercourse!
1997-98: The most unforgettable trips were with my parents, Lizzy, and her grade school friend, Caroline, whom I often referred to affectionately as "Fatline," as she was this lanky, thin, pre-pubescent girl that appeared like a fat line when I squinted at her. Within 2 hours into a 9-hour journey they would start asking "how many hours from their place?" Every trip, they'd begin asking by the time we reached the U.S.S. Steel Plant in Gary, Indiana -- A 19th century sooty industrial complex that had been producing steel for over a hundred years. It was the nation's first billion-dollar corporation, floated as a public issue by J. P. Morgan. The sulfuric smell always choked our pipes around the industrial wasteland of northwest Indiana; consequently, the girls always pestered me to speed up. Speeding in the U.S. is a lot easier and safer than in Canada.
Here in the U.S., the trucks are ordinanced to stay in the right lane; in Canada, they can go in either lane, creating bottlenecks, slow-moving pockets, and enraged motorists. The cruise control never lasted more than a few minutes. The occasional son-of-a-bitch! motherfucker! bastard... asshole! are rather mild reactions compared to the teeth grinding purveyed by the Canadian highway system. A truck going at 90 kilometers per hour in the right lane is being passed by another truck going at 92 in the faster left lane -- can you just imagine the waste, and the consumption of time to make that pass complete? Miles of drivers behind become potential first-time -- or in other cases veteran -- patients for the dentists or the shrinks, every time half an hour is expended in one passing.
Once, in 1997, I made the mistake of flashing my middle finger at one Erb Transport trucker. Next thing, I was boxed by four truckers: two ahead of me and two behind me, in each lane, for almost a 100 miles of migraine- and constipation-inducing 75 kmph -- they had set me up on their Ham radios. This is where the expression "fucked by a truck" emanated from. A colonoscopy would have been a picnic.
To keep my mind from highway agitation, I created many games (for kids and adults). One of the games I had devised for long trips was a trap question, with two answers for two individuals, who would check off their preferred answer instantly once the question was asked -- just like in that TV game show "Jeopardy." The challenging aspect of it was how quickly we made the right choice, when the answers fielded, had onomatopoeic or alliterated values, with metaphorical allusions, like: "What would you prefer -- a) mortality, or b) murder?" Both deal with death, one as a victim, and one as a perpetrator. Both answers are value traps within themselves, which forced them to think fast.
Asking such questions to a 9- to 12-year-old often triggered convulsive hilarity and lengthy debates on the right choice. It not only enlarged their vocabulary inordinately, but challenged adult creativity, and more importantly, kept everybody awake. I was the moderator who asked the questions, and I remember some good ones: "Would you like to be a) sinner, or b) miner? Would you like to be a) proctologist, or b) plumber?" "Would you like to be a) mortician, or b) Martian? Some questions/answers exploded into 40-minute debates between the girls, like this one: "Would you like to be a) father, or b) mother?" I remember these bringing down the house: "Would you like to kiss a) Dumbledore, or b) Voldemort?" "Would you like to be a turd from a) a thin woman, or b) a fat woman?" Guess why we always arrived with stomach cramps!
Trips with children presented us with an opportunity to wonder along about things we normally took for granted or ignored. Butch and Mani, like Lizzy and Caroline years before, always had questions. Can a specific cloud form ever be seen again? Canada was also a big sky country; huge banks of clouds were spectacles for miles with metastasizing hues, as we recognized every animal and country shape when the clouds reformed as they flowed -- and sometimes, we would see a 747-jumbo appear as a little spec by the cloud, then disappear into it. Fluffy, billowing, and towering formations, in various shades of white and cream, sometimes had gray bottoms, with slanted sheets of rain in the distance. "Daddy... what if it was all whipped cream?!"
Bizarre occurrences would make it interesting, like exit 127 would appear when the odometer turned 127 -- or like being asked about a helicopter, and the sudden appearance of it. I always wondered how the thick and tangled underbrush flanking the highways in the north was lifeless, except for birds, wood bugs, and cicadas, whereas in India, underbrush meant only one thing: danger. What would we discover in it? Poisonous critters, including venomous snakes, foot-long centipedes, spiders, lizards, bandicoots, attracting pythons -- road kills in India always proved that. Once, coming back from Quebec City, being sleep-deprived, I fell asleep on a bench at the rest area, only to jerk up immediately and see that I had become the momentary buffet for lake-fly-sized tundra mosquitoes. Oddly, these bites made itching a pleasure, but continued and unconscious scratching made them into large scabs. Wondering always dissipated the monotony, and kept the kids from pulling my hair.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)