Friday, December 25, 2009

X-mess 2009...

Fair warning: The following blog is an epic-length tome of chaos & woe, but not with a self-pitying, whiny intent. This simply documents the past month leading up to a scrumbled & frantic Holiday season. After all you are about to read, rest assured that I am not nearly as panicked and downtrodden as the story may lead you to believe...

"Holidays are joyful. There's always something new..."

Well, that Karen Carpenter lyric is HALF true, anyway.

The Holiday Season is ALWAYS a flurry of activity, mad dashes to the store, unexpected catastrophes, scurrying from gathering to gathering, and financial frustration, but this year has been a DOOZY! This doesn't even come CLOSE to the car wreck of two Christmas Eves ago, of course, but rather than being a single, terrifying event like the one that etched that year as "The Worst Christmas Ever", this has been a Chinese Water torture of hits that, at first glance, could plunge me into the depth of despair. However, upon reflection, each maddening setback has had its own silver lining. Still, just when I think I'm about to catch up..."there's always something new."

First off, to catch up on the last blog, I did manage to cobble together the back door threshold of the house and plug up some of the holes in the house, just in time for the cold weather to set in. With the help of the reciprocating saw my sister left behind when she moved to L.A., I got to explore my mechanical, manly side by doing some work with nails, screws & wood to make a sturdy foundation for the threshold, replaced some rotted wood, and allay some of my self-consciousness about home repair. All the bending, kneeling, and physical exertion left me PLENTY sore for a few days, but the good, productive kind of sore. In the end, it ain't pretty, but it'll do until I research some county home improvement loans and will save me a LOT on my heating bill.

I mentioned unexpected car repairs in my last blog. Well, I shouldn't have jinxed myself. The main cause of my holiday woes this year has been based on my car. My heat's always been a bit weak in my 98 Cavalier, and the temp gauge rarely goes into the "normal" range. I thought little of this, but the guys at my oil change place suggested a radiator flush should do the trick, as there was a TON of gunk in the coolant system.

Now, I bought this from a fairly green grease monkey, who obviously bought it as junk and fixed it up. The body was in great shape, but other than a good repair on the head gasket, he seemed to skimp a bit on or totally ignore the other repairs. The trunk latch was tricky from the get-go, and is now stuck shut (better than open, I suppose), some of the gauges would flip out on occasion, the check engine light was on more than off, the suspension left MUCH to be desired (especially on the near lunar, crater-filled surface of Detroit area roads), and the "theft deterrent system" didn't always like my key and would shut off the fuel for a few minutes from time to time when I'd try to start it, among other things, but the engine sounded strong and it got from A to B quite well...until I got the radiator flush.

First off, since my car was recommended for the more expensive (yet completely overrated & unnecessary) DEXcool fluid, it cost me $30 more than the standard flush. They then charged me $30 MORE to flush my heater core, which I found out later was ridiculous, as the standard flush should do that. After $90, the heat was little, if any, better. I then started talking to a friend and customer at Blockbuster.

This guy has worked at the Murray's Discount Auto Parts store next to my Blockbuster for years. He's tricked out his own show car, which is a late-90s Cavie, as well. He's certified up the wazoo in all sorts of repairs and diagnostics for cars and knows my car model inside and out, top to bottom - literally. I had him look at it.

Apparently, the flush broke the nub off the thermostat. We replaced it, as well as a bent piece that housed it (likely something the seller didn't bother to replace - just added more gaskets), and hoped that would be the end off it. After a VERY minimal charge for labor, and a lot of headaches getting the parts, after a week or so, it was done and we hoped for the best that that would be all.

At this point, I was feeling okay. Working around his schedule to get the car to him, bumming rides from people while it was there, & driving to Hell & gone to find the parts on the dirt cheap was a hassle, but I had just sold my precious F-rotor trombone to pay for my kids' Christmas presents, and so far, the extra money was covering it. Even when I was presented with a $200 shut-off notice for my water bill (which I haven't been receiving), the trombone money was just enough to cover it all. I drove the car for a day for a day, did some holiday shopping, got my son's Wii and some other odds & ends, figuring the car was fine to get me through the holidays now.

No such luck.

It stared to overheat. Thankfully, my ex was willing to drive my kids down to me for their weekend with me, and I told her I would MAKE a way to get them back, so she wouldn't have to make the hour drive here and back again for them. My repair guy's tight schedule forbade my leaving the car with him, and as it did okay for short jaunts of 10 minutes or so at a time, I made plans. My uncle was in from California, so the kids and I met him for lunch on Sat and he agreed to drive us all up. That way, we could all have a pleasant time catching up on the drive up, and he and I could have some grown-up talk on the way back.

Well, on the way to meet up with my uncle, the car overheated again, and the only way to get the parts in time for me to get the car back in time for my next shift was for me to get them while my uncle drove the kids home to Flint. So much for pleasant grown-up catching up. Nonetheless, my uncle agreed to get them home to Flint, while I picked up a new radiator, water pump, coolant, and other necessities to basically replace the WHOLE FUCKING COOLANT SYSTEM, as the nub of the thermostat that came loose in the radiator flush apparently ripped apart the water pump and got wedged in the radiator.

Thankfully, I had already bought my kids' presents, paid the overdue water bill, and after a loan from my mother, I was able to cover the cost. He did the repair and after a couple days of being stranded without a car (thankfully, during my days off), all was fine...for all of a day.

The day after getting my car back, I was running a few errands, stopped to pay my cell phone bill and was hit buy an older lady trying to pass me on the left - IN THE PARKING LOT! We get out and I assess the damage. She tries to convince me that there we 3 lanes in the parking lot (which is ridiculous, and even if there was, STILL doesn't explain passing on the left in a 'no parking zone'), and as I duck my head into the cell phone store to have them call the Hazel Park Police so we can make a report, she drives off!

My hub cap is shattered, my wheels misaligned, and a new leak has started under my car. I thought (hoped) it was just some of the coolant from the previous repair that had been shaken loose from pooling somewhere after the repair, so after talking with the cop for a minute, I continued to run my errands. The car seems fine for the remainder of my runs.

Later that night, I headed out to visit my old friend Jason and his family and pick up the last present for my little girl - a Zhu-Zhu pet, which Jason's BRILLIANT wife had the forethought to buy several of on Black Friday. About half way there, the temperature gauge started to spike and hit the danger zone. I exit the freeway in a panic. I only afforded myself a few minutes to visit before I was due at work. If my car is rendered immobile out in East Warren, I'll never make it to work on time! I let it cool down and started off again, hoping it was a glitch in the gauge I could get checked out later, but after 1/2 mile, it spiked again. I limped it as close as a mile and a half from Jason's house before I gave up, calling Jason to come rescue me. I called my work 5 times in the hour this all took, to say I'd be late, but no one would answer. Now I was fearing that not only would I not have a reliable means to GET to work, but I may not have the job AT ALL!

Jason pulled up about 10 minutes later, bought me McD's for dinner, and took me to his home, where I was cheerfully greeted by his wife and kids (my Godkids). After FINALLY reaching my place of employ on the phone and negotiating the night off to deal with this mess, I was able to spend a wonderful evening decompressing a bit with my oldest, dearest friend, his wife, my Godkids, a cold beer, and a movie.

The next day, I had to bus to 12 Mile & Schoenherr to try and coax my car closer to my repair guy - hopefully at LEAST to my Blockbuster, where it can cool down while I'm working and finish the trek to get repaired. While waiting for my connecting bus, I met an elderly lady who was having numerous health problems, was estranged from her family, laid off of work, and had lost faith in much of humanity. We talked for about an hour in the freezing cold, waiting for the bus. I was my usual, upbeat self and was more than willing to let her vent about her woes. We discussed, family, the rich, morals, values, religion - you name it. By the time the bus arrived, her mournful scowl had turned into a rejuvenated smile. She thanked me for the talk and restoring her faith that there are good people out there, after all. It really helped me put things in perspective amongst all the insanity and pitfalls I'd been facing and warmed my heart to bring some faith back to someone who was in a much more dire spot than myself. I bid her a merry Christmas, got off the bus, and thanked God for that opportunity.

After waiting in the cold 50 minutes for my connecting bus and 2 20-minute layovers too let my engine cool, I got to work just a bit late. After work, I dropped it at my repair guy's house and my ever vigilant and compassionate girlfriend drove me home.

At this point, it's December 23rd, and I'm not going to ask my repair guy to give up that kind of time with his wife and 2-year-old boy on Christmas for my sake. I tell him to get back to me after the holiday with a time line. This, of course, leaves me with no car for Christmas travel. The PLAN was to get the kids about 3pm on Christmas Eve, drive to my family's gathering in Monroe for the evening, and drive the kids back up to Flint for bed. I'd sleep on the ex's couch, spend the morning in Flint with her & the kids, and drive home. It SEEMED such a simple plan! As it was, the ex was, thankfully, generous enough to pick me up and have me and the kids spend Christmas Eve with her. I spent a nice (if at times awkward) evening with the kids & the ex and we put the gifts under the tree after the kids hit the hay.

The next morning was a flurry of of wrapping paper. We all played Wii Bowling & Star Wars - Force Unleashed on Liam's new Wii system, watched Courtney's Zhu-Zhu pet scurry and chirp around the living room, and had an enjoyable morning.

I'm a planner. When I'm confronted with obstacles, I don't whine, I overcome (okay, sometimes I whine THEN overcome). I wasn't going to ask the ex or any of her family to sacrifice 2 hours of their Christmas to cart my pedestrian ass from Flint to Hazel Park, so I booked a non-refundable Greyhound Bus ticket online from Flint to Pontiac for that afternoon. The online instructions said that the actual ticket was supposed to be printed at the ticket desk upon my arrival there. The ex dropped me at the Flint bus station, and as I approached the ticket counter, where they were supposed to print my ticket, I noticed it was closed for the holiday. I figured this was a formality, and the bus driver would have my info on some sort of manifest. When I asked, however, he said I could not board without a ticket. I explained my predicament and he coldly said there was nothing he could do. After several minutes of pleading, I opened my laptop and showed him my confirmation, which I had the forethought to print to a PDF on my desktop. Reluctantly, he let me board (whew!).

When I got to the Pontiac station, I figured I'd just catch a local bus down Woodward Ave to either my grandfather's house or Blockbuster for my shift at work. As I had no idea when the next bus was due (but assuming it would be within the hour) I plugged in my earbuds and started walking South toward my grandfather's, looking over my shoulder on occasion to be ready for a bus. After nearly 4 miles of walking in the cold, ice & rain, with my overnight bag in hand and computer bag on my shoulder, I approached my grandfather's, and as I'm about to cross Woodward to my grandfather's subdivision - you guessed it - the bus drove by. I laughed as I sloshed my way through the slush for the last block. I just got a nice 4-mile walk in, was bundled appropriately for the weather & had my blood pumping so I wasn't freezing, and got one last dose of my Christmas music on my MP3 player. Silver lining. :)

As I walked up to my grandfather's door, my uncle greeted me with a hug and a ham sandwich made from leftovers from the Christmas Eve gathering I had to miss. I had a lovely visit with my uncle, mom, & grandfather before my uncle offered to drive me to work. I had a nice, if busy, shift at Blockbuster and my coworker offered to drive me home.

My friend and repair guy called me the next day after looking at my car. The prognosis? Cracked heater core. Not an expensive part, but entails ripping apart the ENTIRE dash and much of the front seat to install. EASILY $500 in labor at any repair shop. He agrees to do it in exchange for a Wii. Thankfully, only a $200 cost, but still more than I have. The following day, I bus to work at Starbucks. My dear friend and duly crowned "Queen of Awesome", Marney, agrees to loan me the money to buy the Wii, as buying it myself would mean no house payment this month. She meets me at Starbucks on my lunch break to drive me to Target to get it.

A couple days later, repair guy calls me and says it's all done. He also cleaned off my dash before reinstalling it and aligned my wheels to the best of his ability. He also agreed to replace my wheel bearing, letting me pay for that repair after I got my paycheck that weekend. By New Year's Eve, I had my car fully operational, my mortgage paid, some of my chaos-related personal debts paid, and life mostly restored to some semblance of normal. I'll post pictures on my Flickr page when I can afford to restore my Pro account.

Throughout all of this, there were SEVERAL bright spots that helped keep me sane and brought several moments of joy to an otherwise crazy holiday season. The Flint Holiday Walk gig with my quartet, making my family's traditional fudge, visiting Santa, and decorating the tree with my kids, Christmas shopping with my girlfriend, driving with the Christmas music on the radio (when the car worked, anyway), all helped bring periods of serenity, peace, and normality to the season.

I didn't get much by way of tangible, wrapped gifts this holiday, but I DID get a couple. My girlfriend gave me a couple Detroit t-shirts she designed (awesomely talented graphic designer, BTW), a simple white T that says "Bazinga" (if you get it, kudos!), and coolest of all, a cigarette case with a Star Trek logo on it with a built-in lighter! She couldn't have hit the nail on the head better. Not a THING I asked for, yet so completely DEAD-NUTS-ON-THE-MONEY-PERFECT for me! She absolutely floored me.

It wasn't a huge material haul for me this Christmas, yet I am in NO way disappointed with that. My friends and family have bent over backward to see that I survived through this ordeal, as they have for the past 9 months or so. I don't need much. Most of what I need, I have. Everything else is just fluff. What I was given this Christmas was far better than any DVD, electronic gizmo, or toy. I was given the opportunity to see what wonderful friends and family I have, sacrifice to make my kids smile at Christmas, bring hope and faith to someone less fortunate by simply listening, revel in some off the simpler traditions of the season, and gain my perspective on how great my life truly is.

I'm George Bailey, and I'm the richest guy in town.