Nate and I bought a baby blue 1993 Toyota Previa. We filled it with Crazy Dreams Band and made our way up the east coast, through the megalopolis and New England into Canada and down into the midwest.
Two hours outside Detroit, the van overheated. We were en route to Chicago when the Check Engine light came on and the van’s engine temperature pinned at H. Jon pulled the van over to the shoulder of 94W, an exit sign for Parma visible yards away. The periodic hissing he heard when we were leaving Detroit was now a steady, steamy chuff-chuff-chuff and when we popped the hood we saw vapor escaping from the coolant cap, and no coolant.
We called AAA, thinking we had it in the bag: “Bring some coolant!” Our tow truck driver was affable. He did not bring any coolant, but he was prepared to bring all four of us in his truck to his garage, Jimmie’s Towing of Jackson, Michigan. During the tow, he pointed out local landmarks like the Mystic Restaurant (“Don’t eat there, it sucks. Their chicken tastes like steak.”), Michigan Ave, and how it was the same road as the one in Detroit (from there, you can take it to Aberdeen, Washington).
Jon (L) and Jorge take in the scenery
For some reason, spirits were high. Jon and Jorge bought tallboys from the convenience store across the street from the garage and drank them from paper bags while we awaited the verdict. To kill time, we wandered up Michigan Ave, checking out the used vans for sale at neighboring lots, inspecting an abandoned seafood restaurant and peeing in the shrubbery.
It was almost 6pm and we were still 3 hours outside Chicago. Jimmie’s called. The head gasket was blown. The cost: $1650. Parts: arriving in two or three days.
Nobody in Jackson was able to rent us a vehicle that night; most places were closed, wouldn’t rent one-way out of state, or didn’t have a car large enough for all our gear. The folks at Jimmie’s recommended an affordable hotel and taxi company, then let us store our van, and all the gear still in its trunk, in their lot overnight. We were tired, punchy with cheap beer and confusion, and feeling thoroughly helpless. I called the venue in Chicago to cancel, hugged the filthy van and wept.
Our cab ride to the hotel-formerly-known-as-Super-8 took us through the outroads of Jackson, past Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster, to a snarl of freeway ramps. Sadly, we recognized the rest stop up the road from our America’s Best Value Hotel Thing because it was where the Frappuccinos we enjoyed while waiting to be towed to Jackson were purchased. A half-dozen people were tailgating in the hotel’s parking lot, barbecuing on a Hibachi in the bed of a pickup truck. Our concierge, Britney, also felt our pain: “Jackson blows!” She gave us a room with a view of the better hotels, a dumpster, a puddle and a garbage bag stuck in a tree.
Accessing dinner required crossing five lanes of speeding traffic, navigating a barbed wire fence and trolling beneath a highway overpass. The options were, like much of Jackson, bleak. Nate remarked that times like this were why laughter was invented. We passed up Ground Round (“That still exists?”), Old Country Buffet, Panera, and Quizno’s for Outback Steakhouse, which turned out to be the most expensive, most disgusting meal of tour. The ribs made Jorge sad, my side of mixed vegetables were better described as “depressed and oddly sugary” rather than “garden fresh” and Nate, amazingly, couldn’t finish his chicken quesadilla (not so much “stuffed” with chicken, bacon and mushrooms as “oppressing” said items amidst its cheesy paleness). Futility, depression, and queasy fullness bloomed within us in a completely non-ironic, unfunny way.
Our walk back to the hotel in the complete dark was quiet and scary. We dug into a case of Milwaukee’s Best and watched TV. A jingle invented by Jackson’s Fox News affiliate pertly chimed “Buy local, Mid-Michigan!” No amount of trademark asterisks could better highlight the endangerment of Jackson’s economy and culture than our meal excursion. The only other local restaurant we came across in Jackson besides the abandoned surf-n-turf shack, the salad bar in the airport and the Mystic (which “sucks”) was closed at 2pm. The Outback Steakhouse, however, was packed.
Jackson’s Fox News lead story of the evening told of a University of Michigan employee caught propositioning a cop posing as an underage girl on the internet; the image of a screen name being typed over and over flashed repeatedly, intercut with blurry shots of the man in question walking away. The same images, edited together, repeated over and over. Before the cut to commercial, a teaser blared “The dangers of texting while driving! Next!” over clips of people texting while driving, including the cameraman. Clearly people were asked to text while driving in order to collect footage for the segment on the dangers of texting while driving.
We awoke to a bright sun, artificially malted hotel waffles, and a phone book full of rental agencies still unable to help us no matter how early our start. The closest assistance was in Lansing, 45 minutes away. We reached out to our Michigan brotherhood network, and by the time we checked out of the hotel, cabbed back to Jimmie’s, and checked in on our fallen soldier, John Olson planned to come to Jackson to rescue us later that afternoon. Additionally, Rick Olney would buy our van from us for scrap prices. The son of the owner of Jimmie’s and a professional towman for decades, Rick scoped out a 1997 Ford Windstar with a smashed hood, popped airbags and faceless CD player. Options blossomed as quickly as they had dwindled the day before. The Windstar was bumper-car purple, and Rick offered to replace the hood, cut the airbags out and do some other small repairs so we could have it for $1000 and the Previa.
Trailer wreck courtesy Jimmie's archives
While we mulled over whether or not we should purchase a van we didn’t know anything about (didn’t stop us in the first place) and couldn’t really afford, Rick showed us around. Next to another Windstar was a smashed hearse, having reached its final destination whilst delivering someone’s earthly remains to their final destination. In a warehouse adjacent to the lot of wrecks, Jimmie’s Towing’s latest acquisition loomed large and shiny: a 50-ton Freightliner wrecker. In yet another warehouse, the first truck The Olney family purchased for Jimmie’s rusted gently away. Rick explained that the towing with this truck required more skill because the entire hydraulic system had to be manipulated by hand, unlike modern automatic winches.
Jorge and Jon played catch with a water bottle while Nate & I listened to Rick’s tales. Jimmie’s waiting area consists of car seats a box of old photographs, and almost a half dozen scrapbooks filled with various wrecks of yore and towing triumphs – a boulder, an army tank, another tow truck. The garage has been in service since the 50s, and the Olneys acquired it in 1972. They are probably one of the oldest local institutions in Jackson.
Our options were to purchase the dubious frankenWindstar with money we didn’t have, play Cleveland and then set off to Baltimore at a leisurely pace, completely at the mercy of a potentially fickle chariot. Or rent a reliable, phenomenally expensive minivan and take it straight home. I felt as if all cars on the road were mocking me, “Look how driving around I am.” It was simple and sad to decide. Getting into John Olson’s oddly clean and spiffy little black Honda thing with its decent stereo and Band-Aid colored upholstery caused a pang of sadness and regret to tingle through me. We sped safely and incident-free into Lansing, chatting about The Wire, Treme, babies on the brain and Lansing. Our destination: Lansing International Airport, where, for a price, Avis would give us the keys to a minivan and make it ours until 2PM the next day. Once there, keys in hand, we were relieved to note that not only would our equipment fit in the Kia Sedona we were given, we would be treated to a plentiful cup holders and satellite radio.
After thanking the shit out of John, we drove back to Jackson for our gear. Cleveland was not far away, I reasoned; there was time enough that we could play our set, drive home and still return the van within 24 hours. I even offered to drive that long, light-leaning leg of road. Thus emboldened, we went to Cleveland where we were met with PBR, pizza, friends and a screening of Nukie. After a thoroughly decent set and kind words from the assembled, we waved goodbye to the Cool Ranch and threaded our way across Pennsylvania’s harrowing Route 80 to meet Baltimore’s strange, bright morning of home.