The following was supposed to be a brief blog post about friendship and tedium. I coughed up 4,500 words. I’ve yet to earn the skill of brevity.
It began and ended with writing. A note, at first. The note was the task at hand. I and two other college friends had just risen from couches, recliners, air mattresses in a fourth college friend’s Atlanta townhouse. Kevin was the townhouse lessee. He had left for work earlier in the morning, quietly, allowing us to be irresponsible in our drunken slumber for a few more hours. He temporarily entrusted ownership of the townhouse to us, his college buddies, the same buddies who had engaged in a front yard 4 AM tickle fight, leaving behind only a conditional note that requested we “lock the front and back doors before leaving.” Kevin’s duplex neighbored some homes on one of Atlanta’s nicer residential streets, but crime displays no income discrimination. He’d had the catalytic converter stolen from his CRV only a few days prior (a neighboring Lexus and Mercedes seemed to retain all parts). We were conditionally obliged to grant his request. We were also obliged to write a note in reply.
I began the note in this way: “Dear Kevin. You’re welcome. Thank you.” Another friend — Ben or David — crossed out geniality and continued: “How could you?” Other phrases of incredulity followed. I have funny friends. They turn words and phrases into the unexpected, the unconventional. Kevin Himself performs stand-up. I left Ben and David to the pen and paper, to the special creativity that arises after a night of social drinking and camaraderie, exacerbated by communal weary morning giggles, and walked an armful of my softer belongings (pillow, sleeping bag, scarf) outside toward my car, which I’d parallel parked on the residential street the night before. Ben’s SUV was the first to greet me on the street. The curb behind it was empty. I whistled while marveling at how I had parked much further down the street than I recalled. I passed a few more houses in my pajama shirt and cardigan before obtaining a view of a curb that remained empty all the way to the next intersection. I had parked a few spaces behind Ben, but not on a different street altogether. My car was no longer where I had left it. Perhaps thieves had tired of the ease with which they could swipe a catalytic converter and had taken on the challenge of grand theft auto.
I walked back to Kevin’s duplex somnambulantly, sleeping bag unraveled in my arms and dragging on the ground between my legs, to deliver the morning news. The note was ignored in favor of concern, and we all three began to stray along the sidewalk, propounding different phrases of incredulity. I made a dive into the pure bodily and mental stasis that occurs when first presented with a crisis. Adrenaline is paired with the phrase “kicks in” for a reason — nothing ever begins with adrenaline: the initial reaction is always blankness. My college friends don’t encounter strangers. They encounter friends who they’ve yet to meet, but establish the relationship immediately upon speaking to them in a casual way. They made this encounter with a lady real estate agent who was performing lady real estate agent duties outside of a neighboring house. She suggested I dial 911 for a recommendation on the most likely company to tow from this area. She offered to dial it herself as my fingers lingered hesitantly over the keys, years of subconscious elementary D.A.R.E. propaganda reminding me that the number was strictly for emergencies. I bit the bullet casing, dialed the number, and made a quick disclaimer that this was by no means an emergency in any way whatsoever so please don’t be alarmed or begin contacting any authorities because they likely have much more important duties to attend to. I told the operator my location, and she recommended I contact Buckhead Towing before hanging up the phone. I briefly considered the role of the 911 operator, receiving my “This is not an emergency; I need the name of a towing company” call immediately before receiving a call that began with “AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
Smart phones used their brains, Buckhead Towing’s number was googled and dialed, and a lady who would concede the personal description of “sassy” answered.
“Hi. Did you happen to receive a blue Acura RSX in your lot sometime this morning?”
“Mmmmmmmmmmmmm hm. Sure did.”
[A feeling that could be called relief(?) flooded in.]
“Do you know why my car was towed?”
“Mmmmmmmmmmmmm hm. You were parked in front of a driveway. An officer called and had it brought in.”
I hadn’t parallel parked the night before, after all. Apparently perpendicular parking has yet to be deemed legal in these 50 states. It’s the details you fail to notice when drinking. The volume of your voice in a Denny’s at 2 AM. The muffin tops on the girl who’s making the eyes with you at the bar. Driveways. Sassy told me I needed to know my license plate and VIN numbers to even begin the process of reclaiming my car. I thanked her and ended the call (the phrase “hang up” appears to be on a path toward obsoleteness). I didn’t happen to have my license plate number — nor my 20 digit VIN number — memorized, which meant I would have to place a call to the only people who would have access to this information. Involving parents in youthful fuck-ups is never the ideal. More dialogue, abbreviated:
“Hey Mom. Small problem. I’m in Atlanta and I got my car towed.”
“Atlanta. Car towed. Listen, can you tell me my license plate number and VIN if at all possible? I need them to reclaim the car.”
“Griffin, let me tell you something. You are headed on a road to destruction. You better start getting it together soon or…”
“Mom, I’m not on a road to destruction. My car got towed. These things happen to people.”
[Giggles from the Ben/David audience. Avoidance of joke about traveling on a road to destruction without a car. Avoidance of answering the question of why exactly my car got towed on a residential street.]
“This is just one piece of the whole problem puzzle.”
“Can you go outside and read me your license plate number. Mine is only like one up from that. Like yours ends in R6 and mine in R7. I know they both begin with 11.”
“I’m not even sure that I can find this information. It might only be in your car. Let me check the insurance records here.”
“No you don’t have to do that, you can just walk outside and look at one of the cars parked in the driveway.”
“I’m not seeing it in the study, here. Wait, here’s something. Your number is 11B66R7.”
“11B66R7. Thanks. I’ll call later when I get it back.”
I jotted the number down on Kevin’s available notepad and ripped out the page. David remained in Kevin’s apartment and waited for his sister to give him a ride to his car, as I was no longer in the position to do so. A 10 hour drive back to DC sat just past the wobbling hula girl on his dashboard’s horizon.
I sat shotgun in Ben’s SUV while his iPhone googled the address of and then outlined a map to Buckhead Towing. We ruminated on why the nearest towing company would be in Buckhead, which is ritzy and by no means in the vicinity of Kevin’s townhouse. The GPS estimated 15 miles to the final destination, an estimation we discovered to be akin to 1st graders guessing the number of M&Ms in a mason jar re accuracy. Siri directed us for about 25 minutes, on interstates, off exit ramps, down streets of housing projects with plywood for windows, past the spectral shells of small businesses and the full-bodied frames of successful companies whose line of work likely involved making their own extensive parking lots that led up to their warehouse buildings. The setting was impoverished and industrial, two states of being that haven’t been granted the breath of life — one drowning, wanting it desperately, the other refusing to acknowledge its necessity because they have invented equipment that provides the same purpose.
Buckhead Towing was not in Buckhead. The name existed for irony, deception, pride where pride would not show the most attractive side of its profile. Our destination stood on a gravel parking lot, just past a handmade sign and monochromatic fencing, inside of a trailer which had been dubbed the office. Sassy sat behind a prison-like glass panel with a slot for interaction, about 50 pounds lighter than I had imagined her. The inside of the trailer was a color that aspired to be yellow. Post-Christmas decorations of tinsel and glittered snowflakes shined like the prettier (yet somehow still hideous) best friend next to the homely walls. I told Sassy that I was there to reclaim my RSX (likely not the first time a hungover, debatably spoiled white boy had uttered that phrase in this trailer). I had left my piece of paper with important numbers at Kevin’s, but with the help of Ben’s memory, I pieced together a license plate number that granted me access to my vehicle’s glove box so I could retrieve the documentation that would expedite the process of getting me (and Ben) the fuck out of the sadness trailer and on to my 5:00 job in Alabama. I handed Sassy the documents through the slot and watched blankly as she pored over them, her eyes adjusting to the 6-point font.
“Who’s Raymond Michael?”
“That would be my father.”
“You didn’t tell me on the phone that the car was in his name.”
“I don’t think you ask-”
“No, no. You’re gonna have drive to the Public Saftey Annex and have him fax a notarized letter releasing the car to you.
“But it’s my car…The keys are in my hand.”
“Nope. You’ve gotta go to the Public Saftey Annex for a vehicle release form. It’s about 15 miles from here. There’s a little piece of paper with directions over there by the forms.”
I grabbed the paper, and Ben and I exited the trailer. Strategies were discussed as we climbed aboard the S.S. SUV and plugged some numbers into the cell phone GPS. I was in no way to mention a need for a notarized fax from my father to authorities at the Annex. I was to play the part of Naive College Student #1, to only request a vehicle release form so that I could retrieve my car and exit the Inferno, to invoke pity with my ignorance regarding what a VIN or release form even was. Siri stated “right” in her special monotone, and we went right. The roads revealed more of the same. Buildings that refused to decompose altogether, only enough to call your attention to their rot. Children riding bikes in 15 foot circumferences inside the barbed-wire fences of state project housing while parental figures leaned against open doorways and talked. A person roadside offering to sell 50 pairs of socks for $10. A sign nailed to a tree offering to sell 50 signs like itself for $110. A personalized and detailed shopping cart (flags, badges, handlebar spoiler) with aspirations to emulate some of the flashier cars in the area. I mentioned to Ben that we were embarking on a tour of Atlanta’s most avoided sites, the landmarks that no one ever requested to see. Basically an antithesis to Visit Atlanta’s campaign. The brochure might be leaflet from the Salvation Army. I said this as Ben applied the brakes and brought the vehicle to a halt, not before a traffic light or stop sign, but before several pieces of yellow caution tape stretched across the road, tied to trees on opposing curbs. Behind the tape, on our (Siri’s) chosen road to the Annex, lay a felled power line. Our plotted navigation had been unraveled by crime scene tape. Ben made a comment about the absurdity of this situation, and life as an extension — many extensions — of this situation. Siri had no answer, so Ben just drove in the other direction, toward the interstate, which would undoubtedly extend our journey.
The sky was the color of a sad purgatory, without producing rain or sun or any other form of redemption. An errant cobweb cloud loomed in the atmosphere. Ben’s stomach rumbled. He needed food. Not to mention freedom from the shackles of friendship that obligated him to chauffeur me through all nine circles of hell in an attempt to retrieve my car back from the state of Georgia. He mentioned a desire for food sometime soon, perhaps a drive-thru, but complained not at all. The situation was ontologically painful. We knew at least one more journey to Buckhead Towing would compile our afternoon, likely with re-routes, and that was enough to ensure melancholy. Ben made jokes, comments about what bullshit the entire process was. His mood prevented me from falling into solipsistic despair and self-pity. My knee jerk would have been to sulk, but he didn’t, and made it appear as if there was no reason to. Just let the horror unfold as it inevitably would. Because of this, we took the blows like an armless boxer, trapped in the corner of the ring. As they came to us. Experiencing each one anew, marveling at the pain. The atmosphere inside the S.S. SUV was a total calm and comfort instead of what should have been misery (a social comfort I’ve experienced with few other friends and a previous girlfriend). No pressure to talk when unnecessary. No pressure to sew a magician’s handkerchief of apologies.
There were no restaurants in the area. Of course, we drove past the state building before spying it. Pick your classic novel of dystopia for Public Safety Annex building description. I chose 1984. Ben likely would have chosen something from Philip K. Dick. We noted the consistent features of authoritative government buildings: nothing rotund, only wall and floor lines that would take you somewhere if you were to walk them; a structure geometrically modeled after a simple building block, like the blocks we were taught to erect imaginary buildings with as children; no entrance without interrogation by officials regarding intent, and a walk through a metal detector gateway; muted wall colors, similar to the overcast sky outside in mood and purpose; the prospect of a sinuous line with standees who couldn’t be numerated; a prevailing air of fuck-everybody-who’s-not-me bitterness. I filled out some basics on a paper form and took my place in the line, which was mercifully short for the time being. The few people in front of me were speaking to officials behind more prison glass that separated the Annex’s work space with its fax machines and photocopiers and corded phones from the general public’s potentially chaotic line.
Ben and I pegged our present scenario as one of the more soul-sucking of life’s potential events, but quickly decided that a situation much worse than our own would be that of the workers who will reside in the building five days a week for 25 years until retirement. I tried to imagine the special kind of patience and mental gymnastics it would take to endure this job, its people, its building, but stopped before I came anywhere close to empathy. One lady worker (I believe that they were all lady workers, if that’s in any way relevant to the patience equation) was currently being heckled by a man in a uniform of coats who came to be known as Maurice — a regular, perhaps, in the Annex. Maurice wanted his property released to him at a pace quicker than the one currently being pursued by the workers. The exhaustion on the worker’s face and the first-name basis relationship gave one the impression that this was not Maurice’s first time at the mercy of the Annex, nor the Annex’s first time at the mercy of Maurice. He frequently rapped his knuckles on the glass to remind the chosen female worker of his presence, a gesture that seemed painfully impolite in its absence of words, yet necessary for two people separated by such a medium to communicate. The worker would switch on the intercom for communication long enough to say “Maurice, Go take a seat,” and “If you keep acting like this, you’re not going to get it back” and “It’s crime evidence, so we could keep it, you know,” and “Maurice. Go sit down and wait,” and “Sit down Maurice.” But Maurice would not sit down: he continued to give his finger — all five — to the glass, to demand attention, to demonstrate that the shapes who moved beyond the glass did indeed exist, to reclaim what was precious to him.
At this time I was called forward to a hole in the glass, behind which sat a lady worker neighboring Maurice’s victim. I told her I just needed a vehicle release form (using “just” so that we both implicitly understood that I would not be a nuisance and this would be a quick, painless process for all parties involved). She took my papers and vehicle information and began making photocopies, database entry. I smiled at Ben. Everything was rote, and thus smooth. The dialogue was clipped.
“The Acura is a 2005?”
“When was it towed?”
“Early this morning.”
(Scanning my insurance card) “And your insurance provider is Alfa?”
“Who’s Raymond Michael?”
Shit. I didn’t receive the role of Naive College Student #1. I don’t think anybody’s ever been given the part, actually. I called my dad from the Annex to ask him to write and sign a letter of release for my (his) car and then go to the bank to have it notarized and subsequently faxed to the Annex. He mentioned something about being pissed off at me. Since he was at home, the process would likely take some time. Also, Maurice was being extra unruly, so Ben and I left the Annex for lunch.
Ben intoned “food” to Siri. She didn’t quite comprehend on the first try, but on the second she had three restaurants in the area to offer us: Chinese, Mexican, and a Quiznos. Quiznos it was. Siri claimed Quiznos was only 5 miles away, which was great, because our stomachs were tuning for a philharmonic performance at this point. Siri’s first move was to direct us off the major highway onto a two-lane road, and then a direct right onto a neighborhood street of split-levels. After driving past a few basketball goals and leaf piles, Siri informed us we were approaching our destination, on right. The venue looked unique enough — no parking, a front yard with holly bushes, dilapidated wood paneling — but we decided not to knock on the door and investigate the possibility of a Quiznos on the back porch. Ben found his way out of the neighborhood, took a right, and just began to drive. The road wasn’t important; driving would take us somewhere. For those to whom roads are important, however, the road was MLK boulevard. We cruised alongside (what had recently become) familiar views. It wasn’t the time for a diagnostic conversation on the country’s racial and poverty problems. Observation seemed more natural. Ben waited a while and then tried to have the food conversation with Siri again. She had a Wendy’s in mind, and we complied.
The Wendy’s line was less lengthy and sinuous than that of the Annex, but lengthy and sinuous nonetheless. We escorted trays of similar smelling meat and bread to plastic fast food furniture and ate mostly in silence, making occasional remarks about books or life or confusing the two. From the MLK Blvd Wendy’s, out the front windows and under the flags, the spectacle of Six Flags arched in the distance like a rainbow — green, orange, and red apexes of coasters. In closer proximity, men just out of sight of the interstate held up cardboard box signs that offered to wash cars for $15.
On our way back to the Annex, I checked the dashboard clock and noted that we’d been on this journey for 3 1/2 hours, the current time being around 2:45 central, which meant I would have to call the manager at my restaurant job — who’s also my friend — and let her know that I would be late to work the day after calling in sick due to excessive alcohol consumption. Friendship lines, employment lines to be tested. I was on a road to…I wasn’t being an amazing human being, as of late. The topic of bars and binge drinking came up inside the S.S. SUV, specifically an encroaching weariness with the whole “going out” process. Both of our pockets were short a couple hundred dollars from the prior nights, and to what purpose? A need for socialization? Our most rewarding social interactions were engendered by the presence of friends, usually in an apartment, with (or without) our own, affordable alcohol. Girls weren’t there, but that whole process has grown similar to the prospect of sitting through a ventriloquism act at a comedy barn, and the point was camaraderie, not individual romantic pursuit. A need for entertainment? Dropping ten bucks at a burlesque club where middle-aged women with breasts and bellies of equal proportion danced one direction as their flesh swung pendulously in the other to the overbearing drone of live Neo-Nazi metal (a lone skinhead fan clearing a 10 foot radius around the stage with the unpredictable propulsion of his body), with more available second-hand smoke than oxygen, turned out not to be bearable for more than 20 minutes. As for milder bars, fussball can be played at home, without quarters, and darts becomes a chore after the first round. Plus, what were we actually achieving, drinking until we obtained the status of “hammered,” this status being the ultimate goal of the evening and everything afterward being a clumsy, empty celebration of this achievement? What was the prize for our efforts? Ben mentioned that bars always made him sickly and sad, sometimes during and always after, and I realized that they had the same effect on me. They were largely to blame for my continuous foul moods. We weren’t dismissing alcohol to polish our appearances for the Public Safety Annex as we pulled — once again — into the parking lot, but maybe we were feeling burned out on the phenomena of youth.
While climbing out of the vehicle, we noticed Maurice scuttling up the hill, away from the Annex, package in tow. Ben spied a cylinder clutched against his breast, the unmistakable confiscated property returned. Why was the cylinder so important to you Maurice? Are you the emblem of anarchy that prevents the Annex from totalitarianism? Is it the only item you can veritably claim as your own? Why was it potential crime evidence? What have you done, Maurice, will you do? Why did you covet it so? Did you possess the only cylindrical object in a block building?
The line inside had quadrupled in length since our last visit. Everyone miserable, everyone holding a paper form in his hand. I tore the only available page from Maurice’s handbook and walked around the line, directly to the glass wall, and hovered in front of one of the worker ladies (Maurice’s former victim) who was engaged in paperwork. I stared at/through the window until she looked up and pressed the intercom button to open up communication. I cast the smallest of hooks to avoid heading to the back of the line.
“Hey, I just have quick question.”
“What is it?”
“I was here earlier and filled out a vehicle release form, and my dad was supposed to fax a notarized letter to finish the process -”
“You didn’t give me any vehicle release form. Who? Who did you speak to?”
“The lady next to you there.”
The lady next to her there nodded begrudgingly.
The two women carried on a muted conversation behind the glass, and then my interlocutor rose from her seat and headed to a fax machine, flipping through a stack of forms, before removing one and walking back toward me. She reclaimed her seat and punched the intercom button.
“The notary seal on this letter isn’t visible enough.”
She plastered the form against the window for my inspection convenience.
“The seal is supposed to say the name of the county and state. They’re both illegible on the seal in this faxed copy. You’re going to have to send another one.”
“You’re joking, right?”
She wasn’t. I pulled out my cell phone and quickly dialed my dad, believing that if I demonstrated action in front of the worker, she would be less likely to throw me to the mercy of the back of the line.
I told my dad the seal wasn’t visible enough and they wanted him to head back to the bank to fax it in a way where the seal was more visible. He didn’t understand. I didn’t either, but he had to drive back to the bank and begin the process again. He just had to. He directed some expletives in my general direction via satellite.
Ben and I remained in front of the window in disbelief. We stared at the dispenser of freedom with dead eyes. She attempted to fix her gaze on the computer screen in front of her. We continued to stare. She wheeled her chair a few windows over toward a man with some official patches on his shirt, showed him the paper. He nodded, which seemed promising. She wheeled back, pressed the communication button.
“Alright, this one is OK.”
She began the process of filling out my release form on the computer. She hunted for a letter on the keyboard, struck it with her bird finger. Hunted, struck. I immediately called my dad and 86’d the bank mission. She took some time before handing me the vehicle release form, but my pockets had been picked of time earlier in the morning, so whatever she took belonged to someone else in the Annex. I mumbled a thanks and Ben and I conducted something like a sprint back toward the SUV. There was levity inside the vehicle on our final drive to Buckhead Towing. Less reflection than relief. The only thing preventing me from obtaining my car and exiting the innermost circle would be a line inside the trailer office. We laughed about that possibility while walking the ramp to the trailer door. There was a line. Two men deep. An inconvenience, but the cosmos possessed no desire to convenience me that day. Sassy was no longer sitting behind the glass. A new lady, friendlier, was there, and she processed my information fairly quickly. I swiped my card for the $105 towing fee, which was now benign and the least disturbing aspect of my day. My last action was to write my name just under my signature before walking out to the lot and driving my car past its restrictive gates.
Ben opened the S.S. SUV’s hatch and helped me escort my belongings to my freed car. I slammed the trunk shut and stood in the gravel lot and thanked him, though not effusively. Maybe it didn’t exactly end with writing. It did end with communication, though. A hug. In all of that emotional dissonance there was an understanding. No protective glass. But transparency.