Time is a funny thing. It drags or it flies but usually you are not aware of its passing. Then every once in a while you stop and think about it you’re like, whoa, what happened? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s now been four years since I backed the battered and abused Volkswagen into the garage and started to take it apart.
We never had a kid, but I believe there is an analogy here. Usually, unless there are some serious, long-term intoxicants flowing liberally on a regular basis, you don’t send your kid to bed, then when he walks into the kitchen the next morning for breakfast, jump out of your chair, spill your Frooty-Os, blow hot coffee out your nostrils, and stammer, flummoxed, “Holy sh— what the hey? How’d you get so tall all of a sudden, Mikey?!?” But when you drag your family along for that once-a-decade trek to see Uncle Terry — who nobody likes, who everyone avoids like those persistent souls who, undeterred by the gate in your “gated community,” show up on your doorstep hawking pine straw, firewood, steaks, salvation; but family nuclear and conventional tolerate Uncle Terry because he suffers the misfortune of having enough money to seriously believe that the American Dream is alive and well, thank you very much — you arrive at Uncle Terry’s and he says (completely oblivious to Mikey’s cringing parents), “Well goddam! Look at you! No, really — look at you! Look at you!” Uncle Terry tries several different iterations of the same general idea before stepping back, shaking his head, not believing. Then out of nowhere he gives Mikey a solid, lunging whomp on the shoulder, whereupon Mikey braces himself upon a conveniently-placed potted topiary, without being in the least bit privy to what a topiary is, potted or otherwise. “Shit, I remember when you were knee high to a grasshopper,” Uncle Terry exclaims, which is not a very convincing thing for him to say because the man drinks enough vodka to put an entire Siberian village to shame and has a hard time remembering last Tuesday, let alone Christmas, 1998. “Son of a bitch,” he says, in closing. Sportingly, your wife has chosen not to take this succinct clincher literally.
Like I said, nobody likes Uncle Terry.
There are plenty of reality-based, local examples to remind us of the passage of time. Take this Bus, for example:
I snapped this pic a little more than four years ago. I was lamenting the fact that I rarely seem to make it to any of the shows, so I decided to create my own with my bicycle and a cheap digital camera. Okay, so this one wasn’t quite ready for the concourse, but I do enjoy checking out old VW’s in any condition, especially daily drivers — vehicles being kept alive by sheer necessity (among other things). This one had potential, but let’s just say it needed a little work.
Here it is again, recently, after what must have taken miles of masking tape, several months’ worth of Sunday papers, and a healthy percentage of North American Rustoleum sales for FY2013:
You might or might not be surprised to hear that I like it. If it were mine, of course, it would drive me batshit — not because I’m a perfectionist (neither my budget nor my skill level would allow it) but because I believe that nothing is worth doing unless books must be read, hours must be spent on theSamba.com, stupid questions are asked, sleep is lost, and it’s a general-purpose, industrial-strength royal pain in the ass. But since it’s not my Bus, I like it. It looks better, at least. And it bears testimony to the natural beauty of these things, that you can heap all sorts of questionable practices upon an old VW but they still make me ache with desire. Try rattle-canning a Jaguar or a Corvette and you’ll know what I mean.
This next shot was also taken four years ago:
I told of this place a while back. Word is that in the late ’60’s, this place was hoppin‘ — the place to have your VW worked on. I don’t know when it closed down, but I’ve been here since the late ’80’s, and if it was operating then, I never knew about it. But I no longer had an air-cooled VW at that point, either.
When I took that pic I still had hope. Hope for what, I don’t know. Maybe me, or somebody a lot like me, would grab that Bus and resurrect it. Maybe an enterprising individual or party would buy the old building, renovate it, and open up a shop catering to all your air-cooled Volkswagen needs.
I took the photo below earlier today:
The Bus is gone, the sign is gone, the roof has collapsed. For a while there was the carcass of an early ’70’s Beetle in the yard, but that’s gone now, too. Students living in the adjacent railroad houses seem to park in the yard gratis, oblivious to the site’s former glory. Suffice it to say, I no longer have hope for this scene.
Time corrupts, and just in the past year I have noticed this at the personal level. Sometimes the evidence is undeniable, physical. Growing ever more frustrated with the ridiculously tiny print on the labels of everything from breakfast cereal to carburetor cleaner, I recently acquired my very first pair of reading glasses. A tiny little world opened up, one that I had almost forgotten. And for reasons I can’t readily explain, I’ve switched to an electric shaver — a device I’d always associated with old men trying to combat bushy eyebrows and errant, wiry hairs sprouting from their ears.
I watch my intake of salt, sugar, saturated fats. I ensure that my loved one is properly insured in the event of my death or dismemberment. My hearing continues to deteriorate as the ever-present ringing becomes harder to ignore. Put me on a bike and I’m instantly twenty years younger, but I wake up stiffer and take longer to recover.
I no longer sing in the shower. I no longer make funny noises alone in the car. I still have conversations with myself, out loud, but they usually concern looming decisions, expected justifications, or make-believe interviews in which I’m asked, in front of a studio audience: who is Bruce, exactly?
Sometimes I still dream about some day; more often I pine for what might have been, if I’d had my head screwed on right last week, last year, or when I was twenty.
I seldom laugh anymore.
I am losing faith in the power of mantras.
And I find that I’ve developed a powerful yet vague suspicion of crows.
The ravages of time manifest themselves in subtler ways, too. Recently I visited an old friend whom I had not seen in at least twelve years (we couldn’t remember how long it had been, exactly). I’d say we’re both looking and feeling pretty healthy for our age, but things happen to a man’s body when he goes from thirty-two to forty-four. We crease, we slump, we have wiry hairs sprouting from our ears. Though we laugh, hard, about the same things that were funny when we were seventeen, when we stop laughing the clock picks right back up where it left off. Although I’m by far more physically active than my friend, in many ways he remains the younger. He still takes stairs two at a time, I noticed. He still enjoys loud, raucous concerts, while I tend to shun crowds in any form. He can stay up all night, while I get cranky if I’m not headed bed-wise by nine-thirty.
In traffic recently I got behind a Honda with out-of-state tags, which in this town means probably a student. I noticed that his fuel door was open, so I decided I should let him know. Not so much as a random act of kindness, but mainly because I can rarely pass up the chance make someone else feel like a complete dumbass — in this case, for leaving the thing open in the first place, for not using his rear-view mirrors (which would have immediately clued him in), for being buried in his smart phone and thereby oblivious to the world around him. I pulled up next to him, rolled my window down, and with a cranking motion of my fist suggested that he do the same. But instead of complying, he simply stared at me like he had no idea what I was trying to say. His look was a glassy-eyed whatever, dude.
The light turned green and we went our separate ways.
I imagined the insolent things he might be texting or tweeting about the incident, if anything. Probably nothing. Probably he forgot about the whole thing as soon as the light turned green. Women complain about this especially, but I think it’s somewhat true for men as well: among the younger generations, there is a point at which you find yourself completely irrelevant. Invisible.
So then I wonder whether I’ll be the last person on Earth to remember what a crank-window was, what a dial tone sounded like, what it’s like to be lost, what it’s like to not instantly have an answer for everything. I wonder if I’ll be the very last Bruce.
I’m not supposed to have the mental outlook of an old man while I’m still in my 40’s, but I do. It’s scares me. It makes me wonder if I’ve wasted a sizable proportion of my life-force on negativity, fear, pain. It makes me wonder if this is nature’s way of ushering me off the stage, to make room for others, as if I had my chance and blew it.
But I’m not done yet. There are still things left to do.
Sometimes I fear that I’ll be in Velcro tennis shoes and polyester Sansabelt pants before I’m driving the Beetle again, most likely to the early-bird special at Cracker Barrel, followed by a wild night of bingo at the senior center. But as I take stock, it’s hard to believe I’ve come this far. Did I really install that headliner myself? Did I figure out how to rewire an entire car? Did I actually teach myself, at some point during those four years, how to weld, and use my rudimentary skills to join metal, to uncorrupt what time and the elements so earnestly strove to destroy? Which version of me showed up on those days?
It seems at times that I dreamt the whole thing. But then there’s the photo evidence. It looks like my garage, and an old VW that somehow got from here . . .
. . . to here.
So what’s left, chief?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. “What’s left” wouldn’t take that many words, but I’ll show you a picture of what’s left anyway:
Just that. What goes in there. And that’s about it!