14 July 2011

The Van Story- Part 2, Past the Edge of Oblivion

Part II- Past the Edge of Oblivion

When we got out of the truck, a old man wearing aviator shades was walking out to greet us. He introduced himself as Walt, and we got to talking. The more Walt, Josie and I talked, the clearer my understanding of this place became; this wasn't a place that people came to by choice, but rather a place of last resort for people who had expended all of their other options. Walt had been married once before in Utah; his wrinkled forearm still bared her name on a tattered banner over a shaky rose. He was living here, not sure for how long, seeing how things went with a much younger girlfriend out here in the trailer park. Everyone here, it seemed, had some story about how they were just passing through. Nothing about this town had any sense permanence about it; it was as if the whole goddamn place could just pack up and leave in the middle of the night without a trace.

Walt told me he had a couple of vans back in his heydays, and how he had picked this one up as a project a few years back to relive some of those wild times. The 300 six-cylinder in it that his daughter had insisted over the phone was rebuilt and running seemed to be neither; it had been ''installed'' by a shady mechanic in Utah, and Walt's decision to sell it was largely due to the fact that he couldn't afford to pay the guy to finish it. My heart sunk a little when I heard that, but we had already come so far I was still excited to go and see the van. With the desert sun straight overhead, we decided to get down to business, and Walt hopped in our truck as we headed over to the storage yard down the street to go check it out.

Now, for those out there who have never seen a storage yard in the middle of the Nevada desert, you may have missed an important lesson in humanity. The dry air and sand preserves everything like I imagine an Egyptian tomb might, so you get to see in one moment decades of mummified remains of the people who had passed through this place before, either chasing or running from the eerie glow of Vegas over the hill. Walt's space was as sad a display as any, a few pots and pans from a house he once had, old dress clothes from a time he had a reason to own them, and outside, sitting timeless and incredible, was the van; it's faded paint was the color of the desert sand and seemed as old. I’m not sure what you’d call it; if it was a girl you’d say it was love at first sight, but right then I knew that our destiny was intertwined, and there was no way in hell that I’d leave this beautiful piece of machinery to die a lonely death out here in the Nevada desert.

Despite the mechanic's best effort, the van was in great shape. The body was pretty straight, there was absolutely no rust anywhere inside or out, and all of the important stuff was there. The 300, which had been a selling point for me, didn't appear to be rebuilt but it still seemed fairly fresh. When we pushed it forward to see the whole thing, a few cockroaches scattered from where the wheels had been, seemed to consider hiding for a second, then gave up and resolved to lay out in the sand and die. I looked over the suspension, everything was there and secure, and this looked like a deal. A little disappointed that it was more of a project than I had anticipated, Walt shot me an excellent price in California dollars, and we headed back to the trailer park to finish the deal. I began to consider briefly just how I was going to get the van back to the Bay Area on the drive back to the trailer park, but I remembered the U-haul down the street and the thought left my mind.

Walt and I stepped into the only real doublewide in the trailer park, everything surrounding it was an actual trailer- each with sun-baked tires full and Bearing Buddies greased to maintain the illusion that some day they might hook up and roll out of this place. The interior of the doublewide was remarkably sparse; there were two recliners, a TV on a stand playing god knows what, a table in the kitchen, and a shotgun and rifle leaning in the corner. On the table sat a single Crock-pot, and the smell of beans burning in the bottom of it was unmistakable. An older man sat in one of the chairs looking like a redneck’s caricature of Fred Mertz, and introduced himself as Denny. Denny had a sharp wit and a mean spirit about him, but overall was pretty welcoming considering that I was a stranger in his home. I paid the Walt, we did the paperwork, the Van was mine, and it seemed the difficult part was over. Now all I had to do was get it home.

Walt, Josie and I headed down to the U-haul to rent a Tow-Dolly. The U-haul, as it turned out, was ran through the local hardware store. I looked through the store, was relieved to see a few appropriate trailers out in the storage area out back, and I went to the counter, and attempted to rent one.

“Uh, we don’t rent trailers here”, said the kid at the counter, confused, I replied,
“But you have tons of them out back”.
“We used to, sure, but we don’t no more. Company’s coming to pick up the rest of them this week”. I pushed a little more, but the kid was unrelenting. It was about noon, and I figured we had plenty of time to figure something out. We went back to the trailer park; as it turned out Denny had been in town the longest, so Walt figured he’d know where else to try. Denny seemed to remember there being a spot the next big town over, a place called Mesquite. It seemed a reasonable place to go, since I had no map or place to reference where it was. As it turned out, Mesquite was a few minutes drive from the Arizona/Utah border, in the absolute middle of nowhere. Walt decided to join us for the drive, probably because this was the most exciting thing he had done in months, and him and a tired Josie made polite conversation during the drive. I kept my eyes on the road ahead, having no idea of the strangeness that we were headed for.

This is the point in the story where things take on a mystical sort of feel; even now, thinking back, I question if this series of events actually happened. I’m glad I had Josie with me to assure I’m not crazy. I don’t know if it was the almost total lack of sleep, the desert sun, or the malnutrition from not stopping to eat, but the next few hours seem a little fuzzy. Before I go much further, here’s a little back-story on me. It’ll make sense later:

I was about 22 at the time we went to Nevada. My first real job out of High School when I was 18 was working as the Yard kid for a construction company, which meant that I was there to help out, order and deliver materials, and keep track of where all our supplies were. The company was an electrical contractor, and with the rising price of scrap our wire supply was under constant threat of theft. After a few break-ins, my company decided to rent a storage shed from the company across the street so the wire would be a little more anonymous, as well as under video surveillance and behind a gate. I would pull wire from the storage shed for my bosses almost every day to get it ready for the crew to take home in the morning, and since my bosses wouldn’t give me a gate key I had to go in the lobby of the Storage yard and ask for them to let me in, which they always did. After being at the company for about three years, and seeing the family that ran the Storage place almost everyday of it, we got along pretty well, always waved at each other in the morning, I’d share a smoke with them every once in a while, and we’d talk about whatever was new on the block and whatever damage our employees had done to their yard, which always ended in me either sweeping up or getting the bosses to pay for the damage. The husband was an old curmudgeon with a white moustache, he disliked our company about as much as I did, plus he chain-smoked and drank black coffee, so we had a lot in common. The wife was a red-haired British woman; she had an accent thick as the rose-glasses she always wore. About a year before the trip to Nevada I had quit the construction company to go back to school full time, and I said goodbye to the nice couple across the street on my last day, thinking I’d never see them again.

Anyways, back to the desert. We followed the hand written directions that Denny had given us through the desert to the surprisingly quaint town of Mesquite. Between all of the signs advertising golf, the RV resorts and signs advertising “early-bird specials” in the windows of diners, we could tell that the three of us, Walt included, were probably the youngest people in town by many years. I followed Walt’s instructions, and parked near the gate of the yard where again, I could see a few single-axle trailers that we needed. The trailers were being rented through a Storage yard, so we went inside the air-conditioned lobby to rent a trailer. Walt led the way, and Josie and him started talking to the couple behind the counter. Something seemed off to me, and although my fatigued mind couldn’t quite place why I stood at the back of the room, unable to participate in the conversation. When Josie told them the make and model of our truck, the red-haired lady entered the info in her computer without a problem, but things got a little tough when it came to what we would be towing.

The computer system, which always seems to be the thing that keeps us in the “old car” world from getting what we need from the person behind the counter, no matter what the store, only had certain cars listed in the database, and 1963 Ford Econoline apparently wasn’t there. 1963 Ford was, but Econoline was not. The lady entered 1990 Econoline, which is a radically different vehicle in both weight and construction, and probably outweighs the 63 three-fold, so predictably, the computer showed our F-150 half ton wasn’t rated to tow it. Now, in all honesty, it probably wasn’t rated to tow the 63 Econoline either, but safety be damned, we were going to pull the Van with our truck. Besides, she was already “lying” by entering 1990, I wondered if I could get her to err on our side and the side of reason. Finally I joined the conversation, frustrated.

“Look, the Van is about the same weight as a 1963 Ford Falcon [probably not, but still closer in weight than the 1990 they had entered], just put in that and see if we can tow it”. She replied in her thick British accent:

“I can’t just add things in that are false, it’s a liability for our company”. The man with the white moustache sitting next to her sipped his coffee, and nodded his head. All of a sudden it hit me, and my initial nausea made sense: THIS WAS THE SAME COUPLE FROM ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY OLD JOB IN CALIFORNIA!!!!

I couldn’t believe it! Surely, they’d remember me, and I’d be able to seal the deal, and we’d be on the road! I couldn’t have been happier, our problems were almost over. I figured I could draw on my intrinsic old-world Italian charm, shoot a wink and a smile and we’d be on our way. I don’t know what it is about passing through Vegas, but throw in even just close proximity to cheap booze, flashing neon, and gambling and every Italian American suddenly thinks they’re either Nicky Santoro or Frank fucking Sinatra. Besides, these guys knew me, probably better than anyone else in Nevada at least, of course they’d help out a friend in need.

“Hey”, I said, “didn’t you guys run that Storage yard in Livermore? I used to work across the street! Remember? Small world, huh?”

I stood awkwardly shooting the best Ring-a-ding-ding smile I could muster for what felt like hours. The man with the moustache looked deep into my eyes for a second, and for whatever reason, didn’t smile back. Thinking back, I must have looked ridiculous, with a few days beard, a pit-stained shirt that was the only one I had packed, and a greasy sunburnt forehead bearing a mouthful of unbrushed teeth. I never got the terms of how exactly they ended up here, but for whatever reason they seemed to regret it, and my mentioning of their old life actually seemed to make them more upset and less reasonable! Apparently, they weren’t too happy out on the edge of the desert. Eventually, after about a half hour of back-and-forth, they told us to go to another U-haul, rent a truck and a trailer, and tow it that way. I didn’t like that idea, but I did like the idea of the opportunity of a fresh start by going to another rental space, so, defeated, the three of us hopped back in the truck and headed back into the desert. My mind, still blown from the lack of sleep and the smallness of the world was only focused on the drive.

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